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Constipation and Cervical Cancer Treatment

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Updated February 12, 2008

Constipation can often be a side effect of chemotherapy or other medication prescribed during treatment, such as pain medications. Constipation is defined as having hard or infrequent stools or difficulty in having a bowel movement.

How Serious Is Constipation?

Chronic severe constipation can lead to fecal impaction, a condition in which hard, dry fecal matter that develops in the rectum and cannot be passed. Impacted feces are then removed by the doctor manually.

Other complications from chronic constipation include hemorrhoids, anal fissures, and rectal prolapse.

How to Manage and Prevent Constipation During Treatment

The first thing you should do is to talk to your doctor. For many women, talking about their bowel movements is a sensitive issue, but your doctor absolutely has to know how treatment is effecting your body.

Tell your doctor that you are experiencing constipation or hard/infrequent stools. Your doctor will likely want to know about your eating habits, if you have taken any over-the-counter laxatives, enemas, or suppositories, and confirm medications you are taking. These questions will help determine the exact cause of the constipation.

Please note that before taking any over-the-counter medication, talk to your doctor or nurse first. For some chemotherapy patients, over-the-counter medications can be harmful.

Your doctor may recommend several things to manage and prevent constipation during treatment. Common recommendations include:

  • Laxatives. Your doctor may prescribe a laxative or suppository to help with the constipation. You may want to ask how long it will take for the medication to begin working, possible side effects, and for what duration should you take the medicine. An over-the-counter laxative also may be recommended. Be sure to follow the doctor's instructions of how often you should take the medication.

  • Increase Intake of Fiber. For mild cases of constipation, increasing fiber in the diet can be all the body needs to have regular bowel movements. Before increasing fiber in the diet, ask your physician. Some patients should not have increased fiber, such as those who have had a bowel obstruction or bowel surgery.

    Increasing the amount of fiber starts with the foods you eat. Nuts, bran, vegetables, legumes, whole wheat breads and pastas, and fruits are all high-fiber foods that can help relieve constipation.

    Talk to your doctor about how much fiber you should be getting daily. The suggested dietary intake for healthy women is 21-25 grams and men should consume 30-38 grams per day. You can find out how much fiber is in a certain food by reading the label on the packaging.

  • Exercise. Exercise is still very important when going through treatment. Something as simple as going for a short, regular walk can help to prevent and relieve constipation. For those who are bed ridden, moving from a chair to the bed can help because it utilizes the abdominal muscles. Before starting any exercise, no matter how little you think it may be, talk to your doctor. He or she can recommend exercises and tell you just how much you should be getting.

  • Increase fluid intake. Many patients report some relief when increasing the amount of fluids they intake. Drinks like water and juices are recommended. Avoid drinks that contain caffeine, like sodas, coffee, and alcohol, because they can cause dehydration, which may worsen constipation.

    Sources:

    "Constipation." Digestive Diseases. Feb 2006. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. 1 Feb 2008.
    http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/constipation/.

    "Gastrointestinal Complications: Constipation." 19 July 2006. National Cancer Institute. 1 Feb 2008.
    http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/supportivecare/gastrointestinalcomplications/Patient/page3

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