Changed bowel movements
After surgery or radiation therapy, you may notice changes in your bowel habits. You may have constipation or diarrhoea, or feel pain in your abdomen from trapped wind.
Radiation therapy can damage the lining of the rectum, causing inflammation and swelling known as radiation proctitis. The risk of developing radiation proctitis is low and your treatment team will try to reduce this risk. Radiation proctitis is usually a short-term side effect but may be ongoing in a small number of people. It can cause a range of symptoms including blood in bowel movements; frequent passing of loose, watery faeces (diarrhoea); the need to empty the bowels urgently; and loss of control over the bowels (faecal incontinence). You may develop some of these symptoms for other reasons. Let your treatment team know if you develop any of these symptoms. If you have ongoing bowel problems, you may be referred to a gastroenterologist.
Tips for managing bowel changes
- Drink peppermint or chamomile tea to reduce abdominal or wind pain.
- Drink plenty of water to replace fluids lost through diarrhoea or to help soften faeces if you’re constipated.
- Avoid alcohol and cut down on coffee, cola and other drinks that contain caffeine.
- See a women’s health physiotherapist for information about exercises to strengthen your pelvic floor and anal muscles. These exercises can help you control your bowels.
- Talk to your doctor or a dietitian about what to eat, or ask about suitable medicines. They may suggest you take a soluble fibre supplement to help with any changes and improve bowel control.
For more on this, call Cancer Council 13 11 20, or see Nutrition and cancer.
The blood vessels in the bowel and bladder can break more easily after radiation therapy. This can cause blood to appear in urine or faeces (poo), even months or years after treatment. Let your doctor know if this occurs so you can be given the appropriate treatment.
Podcast for people affected by cancer
Dr Pearly Khaw, Lead Radiation Oncologist, Gynae-Tumour Stream, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Dr Deborah Neesham, Gynaecological Oncologist, The Royal Women’s Hospital and Frances Perry House, VIC; Kate Barber, 13 11 20 Consultant, VIC; Dr Alison Davis, Medical Oncologist, Canberra Hospital, ACT; Krystle Drewitt, Consumer; Shannon Philp, Nurse Practitioner, Gynaecological Oncology, Chris O’Brien Lifehouse and The University of Sydney Susan Wakil School of Nursing and Midwifery, NSW; Dr Robyn Sayer, Gynaecological Oncologist Cancer Surgeon, Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, NSW; Megan Smith, Senior Research Fellow, Cancer Council NSW; Melissa Whalen, Consumer.
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