Why cancer treatment can cause bowel and bladder problems and how to deal with them.
Bowel problems, such as constipation, diarrhoea or flatulence leading to abdominal soreness or cramps, and bladder incontinence are among the side effects of different types of cancer treatment. So, even if you have never had bowel or bladder problems in the past, this might change once you start treatment.
These symptoms can be very distressing but, as you will see from this guide, there are some simple steps you can take to help reduce and ease the problems.
In this guide:
What sort of bowel and bladder problems are caused by cancer treatment – and why?
“My treatment caused me gastro-intestinal complications . . . I had read enough to expect this, but the discomfort was still frustrating.” Live Better With community member.
Difficulty emptying your bowels – the stools are often hard – is known as constipation. Abdominal surgery and drugs used for pain and in cancer treatment can all lead to constipation. It can also happen with changes in your lifestyle; for example, drinking less, eating less fibre, or being less active.
A build-up of gas in your stomach or bowels – and the discomfort that can go with it – is known as flatulence. It is triggered by changes in the ‘good’ bacteria in the gut, a side effect of some cancer treatment drugs. Complications in cancer treatment can also lead to flatulence.
Loose or watery stools are known as diarrhoea – which means frequent trips to the toilet. Chemotherapy, radiotherapy and some biological therapies, such as immunotherapy, can all irritate cells in the lining of your digestive system, resulting in diarrhoea. Abdominal tumours can compress or block the bowel and lead to constipation, diarrhoea and flatulence. When on treatment, follow advice given by your local cancer centre and contact them immediately using their guidance around frequency of diarrhoea.
Note: A common cause of diarrhoea is an infection in the bowel. If diarrhoea continues, please consult your GP, so that they can prescribe any medication you may need.
This is sometimes called involuntary urination (peeing without meaning to) which can be embarrassing and uncomfortable. Tumours in the pelvis, for example, gynaecological cancers, or brain and spinal cord cancers, which affect the bladder’s nerve supply, can all cause urinary incontinence. Respiratory tumours, such as lung cancer, can cause a chronic cough, which puts a lot of stress on the bladder.
Other treatments that can lead to an inflamed or irritated bladder are: radiation to the pelvic area, chemotherapy – nerve damage, pelvic surgery – muscle and nerve damage, and hormone therapy – urethral dryness.
Here are some practical tips for living better with bowel and bladder problems…
Helping with constipation
“Prune juice helps with constipation, it’s quite pleasant to drink. You can also try eating prunes or figs, fresh or dried.” Gillie, Live Better With community member.
If you are struggling with constipation, here are some of the things you can do that should help:
Eat a high fibre diet
UK Government guidelines recommend 30g of fibre a day for adults but the average adult eats just 18g! Try to eat plenty of vegetables, including green vegetables and root vegetables, such as jacket potatoes in their skins; fresh or dried fruits, wholegrain cereals (preferably without added sugar), pulses such as beans and lentils, wholemeal bread and pasta, and brown rice. If you are finding it hard to eat, try using a blender to make creamy vegetable soups or a juicer or blender to make fruit smoothies.
Try to keep your fluid levels topped up during the day with regular drinks of water and some fruit juice.
Try to keep active
Walking – if you are able to go out, one or two short daily walks can help and, if possible, try to introduce some gentle exercise into your daily routine.
Try to go to the toilet at the same time each day and put something under your feet, such as an anti-slip footstool, to raise your knees. This can make it easier to open your bowels.
If you are already doing all or some of the above and still have constipation, it might be worth trying one of the following:
- Fibre supplements. If you are finding it difficult to eat enough high-fibre foods, you could try having fibre supplements, as fibre helps food move through your digestive system. Note: Taking extra fibre can sometimes cause blockages, so if you have adhesions or tumour deposits that narrow your bowel, check with your doctor before starting fibre supplements.
- Flax seeds and chia seeds. Adding flaxseeds (also known as linseeds) to your diet can be an easy way to help increase your bowel movements. Some people find that chia seeds can help – they absorb water and become gel-like, which makes it easier to pass stools. You need to take care in how you take seed supplements (chia seeds should be mixed with a liquid before eating, for example), so try starting with a small amount to see how you get on.
Note: Some people find that eating seeds can cause flatulence, stomach cramps and diarrhoea. Other people are allergic to certain types of seeds, so eating them could be dangerous. If you know that you have low blood pressure, avoid eating chia seeds, as they lower blood pressure – which means that you blood pressure could drop even further. If you are unsure whether to add seeds to your diet, check with your GP or consult a qualified dietician or nutritionist first. It’s important to find out whether seeds are suitable for you and, if so, which are best, how to take them, and in what amounts.
“As with nuts and seeds you really are getting a lot of health benefits, and a lovely nutty taste … As with nuts and seeds too, you need to eat moderate amounts. This product is very versatile and I use it in porridge and also mixed in with Greek yoghurt and fruit for brekkie …” Mr L, Live Better With customer.
If you have a sudden onset of abdominal pain/cramps, vomiting or blood in your stools, you should seek medical advice immediately.
Helping with flatulence
Charcoal has long been a popular remedy to ease flatulence as it works by absorbing gas in the digestive system. It can also help with well indigestion and heartburn.
Check with your doctor first to make sure the charcoal won’t also absorb your medication.
Peppermint is a traditional remedy that is widely used to treat digestive spasms so it may help to ease gas and prevent cramps. You can take it in capsule form or as a tea.
“This was a natural way for me to relieve bloating and wind after radiotherapy – and gave me lovely fresh breath as a bonus.” Live Better With customer.
Helping with incontinence
Pads offer you the protection you need and help you feel secure and dry throughout the day.
If your sleep is disturbed by frequent trips to the bathroom trips during the night, or if you find walking to and from the bathroom difficult, a portable urinal can be very helpful.
Incontinence disposal bins.
These provide discreet and convenient way to dispose of incontinence pads.
Bed pads that absorb liquid will reassure you and give you peace of mind enabling you to rest and sleep more easily. You can use these pads not only to protect your bed and mattress but also chairs and wheelchairs.
“My mother sleeps much better, feels safe.” Live Better With customer.
Helping with diarrhoea
Your skin can become sore and sensitive if you have frequent loose stools. Barriers creams and ointments contain zinc oxide, lanolin, or petroleum jelly, and form a protective barrier on your skin. This barrier reduces the skin irritation that diarrhoea causes and will keep you comfortable.
Share your tips for dealing with bowel or bladder problems
Have you had cancer treatment that caused bowel or bladder problems? We hope that you have found ways to help with these.
If so, we’d love to hear about your tips, as they could help other people like you. Share your tips with the Live Better With cancer community here.