Diarrhea is the frequent passage of soft or liquid bowel movements. Diarrhea can cause stomach cramps and frequent trips to the bathroom. The doctor may determine that diarrhea is present when six or more bowel movements are passed in a day.
Diarrhea is a common side effect of some cancers and cancer treatments. For instance, chemotherapy aims to destroy fast-growing cancer cells. Yet, certain normal cells that grow quickly may also be damaged in the process, including the cells lining the intestine.
The doctor may prescribe certain medications (e.g., Immodium, Pepto-Bismol) to control diarrhea. Cancer patients may also need to make modifications to their diet. If diarrhea persists, they may need intravenous (IV) fluids to avoid dehydration.
Tips for Controlling Diarrhea
If you're working with a cancer patient who is experiencing diarrhea, here are some tips you can share:
- Eat frequent, small meals throughout the day in a quiet, relaxed setting.
- Drink eight glass of water each day. Aside from water, try diluted fruit juices, broths, sports drinks, pasteurized apple juice, weak tea, grape juice, non-carbonated beverages, popsicles, etc.
- Drink/eat warm or room-temperature liquids and foods (never very hot or very cold).
- Drink liquids 30 minutes after meals, not during meals.
- Do not eat spicy, fried, or rich foods (which are difficult to digest). Avoid alcohol and caffeine.
- Eat foods high in protein and calories to replace the nutrients lost through diarrhea. Examples include: eggs, asparagus, fish, tofu, white bread, cheese, peas, banana, white rice, cream soups, buttermilk, halibut, noodles, tapioca, baked potato, custard, poultry, avocado, smooth peanut butter, macaroni, applesauce, yogurt, and carrots.
- Eat foods containing potassium (e.g., bananas, potatoes, diluted fruit juices, cooked vegetables), as diarrhea may also cause you to lose potassium.
- Eat foods containing sodium (salt) (e.g., broths, saltines, pretzels).
- Until you feel better, avoid high-fiber foods (e.g., whole grains, nuts, beans, raw vegetables, fruits with seeds/skins), which may increase the activity of the bowel.
- Avoid drinking milk and eating foods that are made from milk until you feel better. The lactose in the dairy products may cause diarrhea or make symptoms worse.
- Try laying down 30 minutes after meals. Rest may slow down the digestive tract.
- Ask your doctor if you should stop taking vitamin C temporarily.
- Water-soluble fiber supplements such as pectin (e.g. Sure-jell) may help form a firmer stool. Try adding Sure-jell to hot cereals, soups, or a banana smoothie with rice milk.
Note: This information isn't intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Cancer patients should always see the advice of their physician or other qualified health care provider regarding cancer-related side effects.