Diarrhea: Cancer Treatment Side Effect
What is diarrhea?
Diarrhea means having bowel movements that are soft, loose, or watery more often than normal. If diarrhea is severe or lasts a long time, the body does not absorb enough water and nutrients. This can cause you to become dehydrated or malnourished.
What causes diarrhea?
Cancer treatments, or the cancer itself, may cause diarrhea or make it worse. Some medicines, infections, and stress can also cause diarrhea. Tell your health care team if you have diarrhea.
What are the dangers of diarrhea?
Diarrhea that leads to dehydration (the loss of too much fluid from the body) and low levels of salt and potassium (important minerals needed by the body) can be life threatening. Call your health care team if you feel dizzy or lightheaded, have dark yellow urine or are not urinating, or have a fever of 100.5 °F (38 °C) or higher.
Ways to manage diarrhea
You may be advised to take steps to prevent complications from diarrhea:
- Drink plenty of fluid each day. Most people need to drink 8 to 12 cups of fluid each day. Ask your doctor or nurse how much fluid you should drink each day. For severe diarrhea, only clear liquids or IV (intravenous) fluids may be advised for a short period.
- Eat small meals that are easy on your stomach. Eat six to eight small meals throughout the day, instead of three large meals. Foods high in potassium and sodium (minerals you lose when you have diarrhea) are good food choices, for most people. Limit or avoid foods and drinks that can make your diarrhea worse.
- Check before taking medicine. Check with your doctor or nurse before taking medicine for diarrhea. Your doctor will prescribe the correct medicine for you.
- Keep your anal area clean and dry. Try using warm water and wipes to stay clean. It may help to take warm, shallow baths. These are called sitz baths.
Questions to ask your health care team about diarrhea
Prepare for your visit by making a list of questions to ask. Consider adding these questions to your list:
- What is causing the diarrhea?
- What symptoms should I call you about?
- How much liquid should I drink each day?
- Can I speak to a registered dietitian to learn more about foods and drinks that are best for me?
- What medicine or other steps can I take to prevent diarrhea and to decrease rectal pain?
NCI's Gastrointestinal Complications PDQ® summary discusses GI problems common in cancer patients. For more information, see the section on diarrhea in the patient or health professional version.
Listen to tips on how to manage diarrhea caused by your cancer treatments such as radiation therapy.
(Type: MP3 | Time: 2:55 | Size: 2.7MB)
Radiation Therapy Audio Transcript
What To Do About Diarrhea
What to do when you have diarrhea from radiation therapy.
Let's listen in as support group members and the group's leader, Janet, talk about coping with diarrhea.
I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm beginning to feel like I live in the bathroom. Some days diarrhea keeps me close to home when I'd rather be out.
I'm glad you brought this topic up, Miguel. Many people getting radiation therapy to the pelvis, stomach, or abdomen have diarrhea. The good news is that there are things you can do to manage it. Let's go over 3 steps that can help.
Thanks. That would be great.
First, drink lots of clear liquids like water, ginger ale and clear broth. Most people need to drink more liquids when they have diarrhea – 8 to 12 glasses a day. Check with your doctor to see how much liquid you should drink. Keep in mind that this won't stop the diarrhea, but it will help replace the fluids you are losing.
Second, eat small meals every 2 or 3 hours that are easy on the stomach. Anyone ever heard of the BRAT diet?
Yeah. Let's see… "B" is for bananas, then there's "R" for rice, "A" for applesauce, and… oh, then there's "T" for toast.
That's it - bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast.
OK, on to the third step – avoid things that can make your diarrhea worse, like milk, alcohol, and drinks with caffeine in them. Stay away from raw fruits and vegetables that have a lot of fiber in them and stay away from fried or greasy foods. Ask your doctor about other foods you may need to avoid.
Is there medicine that can help?
Yes, medicine can help some people. Ask your doctor or nurse about medicine that would be best for you.
Folks, one last thing – be sure to call your doctor or nurse right away if you're dizzy or have diarrhea or stomach pain for more than a day. Okay?
Okay. Thanks for the information, Janet – I think I can do those things you mentioned.
Drink lots of clear liquids each day. Most people need to drink 8 to 12 glasses. Check with your doctor to see how much liquid you should drink each day.
It may also help to follow the BRAT diet. Bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast are easy on the stomach.
Avoid greasy or spicy foods. They can make your diarrhea worse, so can milk, alcohol, and drinks with caffeine in them.
Ask about medicine that can help, and be sure to let your doctor or nurse know if you're dizzy or have diarrhea or stomach pain for more than a day.
Talk with your nurse to learn more about how to manage diarrhea during radiation therapy.