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Gastrointestinal Concerns

Diarrhea and constipation are very common and very discomforting side-effects of cancer treatment. Gastrointestinal issues are by nature very personal, yet they should be shared with your medical team at the onset of symptoms. For a cancer patient, it does not take long for a seemingly small gastrointestinal upset to become a major medical complication.


Diarrhea is simply softer stool and more frequent bowel movements. It can accompany the full range of a cancer treatment, from surgery and chemotherapy through radiation. Dehydration is the principal danger from diarrhea. It is critical that hydration be monitored and evaluated throughout treatment.

Diet can help lessen the impact of diarrhea:

• Avoid fiber-rich foods, caffeine and alcohol. These are stimulants that increase diarrhea symptoms and cause increased irritation. Conditional lactose intolerance can accompany diarrhea, so it’s best to avoid dairy and cheese until the diarrhea is remedied.

• Drink plenty of water.

• Prepare clear soups and broths that are high in protein.

• Don’t be fooled by the initial cessation of symptoms. Ease back into solid foods with soft-textured items rich in protein. Bananas, fruit sauces (applesauce, peach sauce and pear sauce are all excellent choices) and bread can be great first steps toward recovery.

• Gradually move back into dairy, fiber rich foods and your normal diet.

• Do not overload your digestive system. Eat smaller meals more frequently.


Constipation is a common side-effect of many frequently prescribed pain medications, so it can occur during any ongoing medical treatment, not just chemotherapy or radiation. Constipation can lead to painful fecal impactions and even life-threatening crises. My father suffered from constipation many times following surgeries, most often as a result of his pain medication. Trust me when I say that it can be both discomforting and dangerous.

Where diet and constipation is concerned, focus on the following:

• Drink plenty of water and liquids.

• Prepare a fiber rich diet.

• Avoid foods that commonly cause gas. Cabbages and cruciferous vegetables are notorious offenders. Onions, dried beans and fast foods should also be taken in moderation, or avoided.

• An increase in locomotion can help alleviate constipation.

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