Being Well

Managing Cancer Constipation and Other Digestive Side Effects

If you're going through cancer treatments, you may have certain digestive system side effects, such as cancer constipation. Learn more about managing them here.

While contemporary cancer treatments are effective, they can cause significant symptoms — like cancer constipation, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting – that can be difficult to manage. Current medical treatments, like chemotherapy and radiation, are used to destroy actively dividing cancer cells, but these treatments can also have an effect on healthy cells in the body, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, like those that actively grow and divide. This includes cells located in your digestive system, and it’s part of the reason for the most common digestive issues you may experience.

Fortunately, it’s possible to manage digestive problems that occur because of your treatment. Before attempting any self-remedies, check with your doctor to be sure it’s safe, especially if you’re still undergoing cancer treatment.

Easing Side Effects

According to the American Cancer Society, some of the most common digestive system side effects of chemotherapy or radiation are constipation, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. If you’re having these issues, it’s important to remember you’re not alone.

Because your cancer journey is unique, you may have digestive system side effects that are different from another person’s. The type and severity of the problems you may experience depends on the type of treatment you’re receiving, how you receive treatment and other factors, like additional medications you may be taking.

  • Cancer constipation. Constipation can occur because of chemotherapy, pain medications or scar tissue from surgeries. To help manage this problem, be sure to drink more fluids and try to increase your physical activity. Ask your doctor about changing your medications if they’re known to cause constipation and if you should increase the amount of fiber in your diet. Fiber can help to relieve constipation, but, for some people with cancer, high-fiber diets aren’t recommended.
  • Diarrhea. Chemotherapy and radiation to the pelvic region are also known to cause diarrhea. If you’re having diarrhea as a result of your treatment, try to avoid foods and beverages that can cause it, including caffeine, alcohol, dairy, high-fat foods, spicy foods and prune juice. Be sure to check with your doctor before taking any medications that helps prevent diarrhea.
  • Nausea and vomiting. These issues can be very uncomfortable and can cause more serious problems, like dehydration. To best manage these side effects, ask your doctor about any prescription medications you might take to prevent nausea and vomiting. Some alternative therapies, like acupuncture, can also be beneficial, but you should check with your doctor before beginning any alternative treatment.

Managing Embarrassment or Anxiety

These digestive system side effects may also make you feel embarrassed or anxious. Keep in mind that many people feel this way, especially when dealing with side effects from cancer treatments. According to Psychology Today, there are two good ways to approach your embarrassment: avoid it or confront it. The best strategy for resolving any embarrassment or awkwardness is to confront the feelings directly.

It may be uncomfortable at first, but using humor to resolve situations that arise due to treatment side effects can help you feel more at ease. Humor shows you’re able to handle the situation, and it helps demonstrate your courage in facing cancer to your healthcare team, family and friends. Humor, taking deep breaths, counting to 10 and other simple techniques can also be especially effective in managing anxiety.

While it’s possible your cancer treatment may cause certain digestive system issues, it’s also possible for you to manage these problems effectively. By working together with your healthcare team, you can ensure you choose options for managing side effects that will alleviate your symptoms while working with your cancer treatment.

UVA Cancer Center has nutritionists on staff to offer you information and resources during your treatment process.

Learn More
Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN