After surgery or during chemotherapy or radiation therapy, some women have bowel problems. You may experience diarrhoea, constipation or stomach cramps. Pain relief medicines may also make you feel constipated. Diarrhoea and constipation can occur for some time, but often these bowel changes are temporary.
Ask your doctor, nurse or dietitian for advice about eating and drinking, and see the tips below for suggestions on preventing or relieving these side effects.
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Tips for managing bowel changes
- Drink plenty of liquids to replace fluids lost through diarrhoea or to help soften stools if you are constipated. Warm and hot drinks work well, but avoid alcohol and caffeinated drinks.
- Avoid fried, spicy or greasy foods, which can cause pain and make diarrhoea and constipation worse.
- Ask your pharmacist or doctor about suitable medicines to relieve symptoms of diarrhoea or constipation.
- Eat small, frequent meals instead of three big ones.
- Drink peppermint or chamomile tea to reduce stomach or wind pain.
- If you have diarrhoea, rest as much as possible as diarrhoea can be exhausting.
- If you are constipated, do some gentle exercise such as walking.
- For more information see Nutrition and Cancer.
Treating a blockage in the bowel
Surgery for ovarian cancer sometimes causes the bowel to become blocked (bowel obstruction). A bowel obstruction can also occur if the cancer comes back. Because waste matter (faeces) cannot pass through the bowel easily, symptoms may include feeling sick, vomiting, or stomach discomfort and pain.
To relieve the symptoms, you may have a small tube (stent) put in that helps keep the bowel open. The stent is inserted through the rectum using a flexible tube called an endoscope.
Occasionally, the blockage in the bowel is treated with a stoma. A stoma is a surgically created opening in the abdomen that allows faeces to leave the body. Part of the bowel is brought out through the opening and stitched onto the skin. A small bag is worn on the outside of the body to collect the waste. This is called a stoma bag or appliance. The stoma may be reversed when the obstruction is cleared or it may be permanent.
There are two types of stomas for a bowel obstruction:
- colostomy – made from part of the colon (large bowel)
- ileostomy – made from the ileum (part of the small bowel).
People often have many questions after a stoma. A specially trained stomal therapy nurse can show you how to look after the stoma. For more information, contact the Australian Association of Stomal Therapy Nurses or the Australian Council of Stoma Associations, or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.
Internal scar tissue (pelvic adhesions)
Tissues in the pelvis may stick together after a hysterectomy (known as an adhesion). These can be painful or cause bowel problems such as constipation. Rarely, adhesions to the bowel or bladder may need to be treated with further surgery.