Managing Symptoms: Constipation

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The Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania
Last Modified: March 20, 2009

What is constipation?

Constipation is a decrease in the number of daily bowel movements and/or the difficult passage of hard stool. It may cause discomfort or bleeding from the rectum. This may be caused by decreased fluid and/or food intake, decreased activity, some medications, cancer treatments (chemotherapy), and/or cancers of the digestive system.

The signs and symptoms of constipation include:

  • Small, hard bowel movements
  • No regular bowel movement in 3 days
  • Leaking small amounts of soft or liquid stool from the rectum
  • Frequent and/or persistent stomachaches or cramps
  • Passing large amounts of gas or frequent belching
  • Blown-up or enlarged belly
  • Nausea and/or vomiting

When should I call the doctor or nurse?

Call your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • No bowel movement in 3 days
  • Blood in the stool or on toilet tissue
  • Rectal pain
  • No bowel movement within 1 day of taking a laxative prescribed by the doctor
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Abdominal pain, cramping or swelling

What can I do?

  • Increase the amount of high-fiber foods in your daily diet, such as:
  • Fresh raw vegetables and fruits, especially those with skins (apples, pears, plums).
  • Bran, whole grains and cereals, granola, wheat germ flakes, and beans.
  • Dried fruits, especially dates, prunes and apricots.
  • Prune, pear and apple juices.
  • Drink 6-8 glasses of fluid per day. Try warm or hot fluids, especially in the morning.
  • Increase your physical activity as much as possible. Even short walks will help decrease constipation.
  • Attempt a bowel movement at a regular time each day, preferably after breakfast.
  • Talk with your medical oncologist or nurse before using over-the-counters laxatives, stool softeners or enemas.
  • Avoid chocolate, cheese, eggs, beef or fatty fried foods, as these can cause constipation.

How is Constipation Treated?

Treatment of constipation will depend on its cause. Your doctor or nurse may recommend a bowel regimen. Do not take any medications unless instructed by your doctor or nurse. If you have any questions about constipation or need additional information, ask your doctor or nurse.

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