Oncology: Controlling Constipation

Having trouble passing stool (constipation) is a common side effect of cancer treatment. Constipation is when you:

  • Aren't moving your bowels like you usually do

  • Feel like you need to move your bowels, but can't

  • Have trouble passing small, dry, hard stools

It can be caused by many things, such as:

  • Chemotherapy

  • Pain medicine

  • Other medicines you may be taking

  • Changes in your diet

  • Not drinking enough liquids

  • Not being as active as usual

The symptoms of constipation are:

  • Belly bloating or fullness

  • Gas

  • Belly cramps

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

It can also take away your appetite. In severe cases, you may have what looks like diarrhea. This liquid stool leaks around the hard stool that's blocking your bowel.

Man and woman outdoors, walking.

3 steps to help treat constipation

The best way to treat constipation is to keep it from happening. Ask your healthcare provider if you are at risk for constipation. You should also ask what you should do to try to prevent it. These steps can help:

Step 1. Drink plenty of fluids

Water, prune juice, and warm or hot drinks are good choices. Try drinks that have worked for you in the past.

Step 2. Eat high-fiber foods

Whole grains, nuts, bran, fruit, and vegetables all can help prevent constipation. They increase stool bulk, making it easier to pass. Ask your healthcare provider if it's OK to add more fiber to your diet and how to do it.

Step 3. Exercise often

It helps to be up and moving. Taking a short walk each day is a good way to start. Check with your healthcare provider before starting an exercise program.

When to see your healthcare provider

Talk to your healthcare provider if:

  • You have no bowel movement in 3 days or more, especially if you are taking vinca alkaloids (vinblastine, vincristine, or vinorelbine) or pain medicine.

  • You are vomiting.

  • You have pain in your belly.

  • You see blood when you wipe or there's blood in your stool.

  • The laxative you were told to use doesn't work in a day or 2.

Medicines can also help

Ask your healthcare provider about medicines to help ease constipation. They may give you a stool softener or laxative. These can ease constipation by helping you have a bowel movement. You may also be told to take them daily for a while to help keep you from getting constipated again. Don't take any over-the-counter product without asking your healthcare provider first.