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Constipation develops when bowel movements occur less frequently than usual, causing the stool to remain in the colon longer than it should. As a result, the colon absorbs too much water from the stool, causing it to become hard, dry and difficult to pass.

Along with infrequent bowel movements (generally fewer than three per week), the symptoms of constipation include:

  • Pain and bloating in the midsection
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Straining during bowel movements
  • A feeling that the bowel cannot be completely emptied
  • A sensation that stool has become lodged in the rectum

Occasional constipation is common and not usually problematic. However, the condition can become chronic, particularly among people who are undergoing cancer treatment.

Why does constipation occur during cancer treatment?

Many factors can lead to constipation, including an insufficient intake of fluids and dietary fiber, a lack of physical activity, certain medications, poor bowel habits, a change in routine and pressure on the bowel from a tumor or fluid buildup. Because cancer and its treatment can significantly impact your daily routine – possibly affecting your eating, exercise and bowel habits – it can potentially lead to constipation.

In addition to discomfort, long-term constipation can lead to serious complications, including hemorrhoids, anal fissures, fecal impaction and rectal prolapse. Therefore, it is important to take steps to prevent and manage the condition.

Dealing with constipation during cancer treatment

Some simple lifestyle changes can help prevent and relieve constipation. These include:

  • Increasing fiber intake – Eating fiber-rich foods, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains, can improve gut function.
  • Staying as active as possible – Regular exercise can help keep stool moving through the colon.
  • Increasing fluid intake – To stay well-hydrated, drink eight glasses of water each day and avoid caffeinated beverages, which can be dehydrating.
  • Practicing good bowel habits – Allow enough time for bowel movements and always promptly heed the urge to “go.”

If you are taking narcotic pain medications, which can slow your bowel function, your physician may recommend a laxative to stimulate muscle movement in your intestines. Always follow your physician’s instructions regarding the use of laxatives, stool softeners or other bowel management strategies.

You are encouraged to talk with a physician if you experience constipation symptoms during cancer treatment. To request an appointment at Moffitt Cancer Center, please call 1-888-663-3488 or complete a new patient registration form online. We do not require referrals.