Bowel cancer and your diet

Immediately after treatment – particularly surgery – you might be on a low-fibre or soft diet. During and after recovery from treatment, you may find that some foods cause discomfort or diarrhoea.

Your treatment team may tell you about some foods to avoid, but different foods can affect people differently, so you will need to experiment to work out which foods cause problems for you. It is best to limit – not eliminate – these foods from your diet, as you may find that what you can handle improves over time. Keeping a food and symptom diary can help.

If you have a stoma, you may need to make some dietary changes in the first few weeks to help the stoma settle. Nuts, seeds and very fibrous foods can lead to a blockage in the stoma. The level of stoma output will vary depending on how much you eat and when you eat. By trial and error, you might identify particular foods that irritate the stoma, but these vary considerably between people.

Most people with a stoma return to their normal diet. If you have concerns, your doctor or stomal therapy nurse may refer you to a dietitian.

The Australian Government’s booklet Improving Bowel Function After Bowel Surgery provides some helpful tips. Visit bladderbowel.gov.au to download a copy, or call 1800 330 066.

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Diarrhoea and diet

Diarrhoea, the frequent passing of loose, watery faeces, may be caused by different types of treatment:

  • Surgery – If you have had part of your bowel removed, your bowel motions may be looser than you were used to. This is because the bowel absorbs water to form your stools. With a shorter bowel, the stools do not form as solidly as before. This may be ongoing.
  • Radiotherapy – Diarrhoea is a common side effect of radiotherapy. It can take some weeks to settle down after treatment has finished – for a small number of people, diarrhoea is ongoing.
  • Chemotherapy – This can cause diarrhoea and nausea. These side effects will go away after treatment and you can gradually resume a normal diet.

The fast movement of food through your bowel before your body can absorb the water and nutrients can make you dehydrated. If left untreated, this can be dangerous. To manage dehydration, drink plenty of water and consider using a rehydration drink. If your anus becomes sore, a pharmacist can recommend a cream.

Having diarrhoea can also make you feel tired. Try to rest as much as possible and ask family or friends to help out with chores.

Talk to your doctor and nurses about ways to control diarrhoea, such as using medicines, changing your diet and replacing fluids. You may also be referred to a dietitian or to a physiotherapist who specialises in bowel function.

Foods that may cause diarrhoea

  • Fruit (fresh or dried) – grapes, stone fruit (such as apricots, peaches and plums), most berries
  • Vegetables and legumes – capsicum, cabbage, onions, beans, peas, corn, broccoli, lentils, dried beans, baked beans, peas, brussels sprouts
  • Alcohol – beer, wine, spirits (these can cause dehydration)
  • Bran, nuts, seeds and fibre – multigrain, wholemeal and high-fibre breads, some breakfast cereals
  • Fatty foods – butter, cream, fatty meats, fried foods
  • Lactose – dairy foods (such as milk, cream, yoghurt and soft cheeses)
  • Spicy foods – garlic, onion, chilli, curry
  • Caffeine – coffee, tea, chocolate, cola-type soft drinks, energy drinks
  • Sugar-free  foods and drinks – the sweetener sorbitol has a laxative effect

Tips for managing diarrhoea

  • Eat low-fibre foods, such as white rice, white pasta, white bread, rice-based cereal, potatoes, fish and lean meat.
  • Well-cooked vegetables without seeds, husks or skin, such as carrots, potato and pumpkin, are good choices.
  • Eat three small meals a day and snack often.
  • If you suspect that a food causes diarrhoea, avoid it for 2–3 weeks. Reintroduce one food at a time. If the diarrhoea flares up again, you may want to avoid that food.
Read more about managing diarrhoea and foods to avoid

Wind (flatulence) and diet

Many people who have treatment for bowel cancer, especially surgery, find that it gives them wind. Reducing the foods that produce wind may be helpful. These might include fruit and vegetables with a high amount of carbohydrates that cannot be digested and absorbed in the intestine.

Foods that may produce wind

  • Eggs – prepared any way
  • Vegetables (raw or cooked) – broccoli, cabbage, onions, cauliflower, corn, asparagus, brussels sprouts
  • Legumes – lentils, beans
  • Dairy products – strong cheeses, large serves of dairy products (such as milk and cream)
  • Fizzy (carbonated) drinks – some soft drinks, beer
  • Raw and dried fruit – pears, dates, raisins, figs, prunes, grapes, pineapple, apples, bananas

Tips for reducing wind

  • Try chewing charcoal tablets, eating natural yoghurt and/or drinking peppermint tea.
  • Cut food into small, bite-sized pieces.
  • Chew your food slowly and thoroughly.
  • When you have a drink, take small sips.
  • Talk to your doctor about doing light exercise to relieve bloating and gas.
Read more about reducing wind

Stoma blockages and diet

For people with a stoma, some foods can cause blockages in the stoma. This means solids, fluids and gas can’t move through as they normally would. This can be uncomfortable and cause a bloated feeling or nausea. If you experience symptoms of a blockage for more than two hours or you start vomiting, contact your nurse or hospital.

Foods that may cause blockages

  • High-fibre foods – oranges, strawberries, apples
  • Raw vegetables – cabbage, celery, carrot, tomatoes
  • Cooked vegetables – spinach, green beans, broccoli, cauliflower
  • Seeds or kernels – popcorn, nuts, coconut, corn
  • Spicy foods – chilli, curry
  • Fruit and vegetable skins – apples, grapes, tomatoes
  • Meat casing – sausages

Tips for avoiding blockages

  • Eat regular meals.
  • Try to maintain a balanced diet so your body is well nourished.
  • Drink up to eight glasses of fluid a day to stay well hydrated.
  • Cut food into small, bite-sized pieces, and chew slowly and thoroughly.
  • If you have trouble eating a certain food, talk to a dietitian about alternatives.

This information was last reviewed in February 2017
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