It’s common for some types of chemotherapy to cause abdominal cramping, flatulence and a generally uncomfortable feeling in the stomach or abdominal area. This can range from mild discomfort to painful and may even affect your appetite.
Luckily, there are lots of things you can do that could help to ease any pain and help you feel better. Most of these things are natural remedies, or things you can incorporate into your dietary routine with as little disruption as possible.
In this article we’re going to talk about the different reasons for stomach pain during cancer treatment, what can help and what to avoid.
What kind of stomach pain is related to cancer treatments?
When we refer to “stomach pain” we generally mean pain or discomfort in the abdominal region. This is the part of our body located between our chest and pelvis.
There are a number of ways that chemotherapy or other treatments might affect your digestive system.
- Chemo can cause our intestines to work faster or slower than usual. These changes to the wave-like action that moves the stools through the bowel can result in wind, constipation and harder dryer stools (slower intestines) and soft, unformed stools and cramping (faster intestines).
- Chemicals in chemotherapy treatment can sometimes affect the nerve supply to your bowel which can affect bowel movements
- Chemotherapy can damage the cells that line your gut, causing constipation
- Chemo can alter the balance of normal bacterial flora present in the intestines. This can also effect digestion, causing abdominal pain, cramping and gas.
Steroids and immunpsupressive medications
- Steroids and immonusuppressive medications could increase the probability of ulcers or in rarer cases, more serious complications such as perforation.
Indirectly, cancer treatment can affect all kinds of things including changes to eating habits, a lack of exercise and cause some anxiety or depression which can all affect the digestive system.
What does normal stomach pain feel like, should I be worried?
Cramping is caused when the bowel spasms or contracts. It’s not usually a constant pain, but can come in waves or intermittent sharp pains. It might be accompanies by constipation, gas (in the form of burping and/or flatulence) or diarrhoea.
For anyone who’s ever experienced constipation or severe wind, despite being mostly harmless, it can feel very painful. Some types of chemotherapy can make these symptoms more common and more pronounced.
By following a few of the dietary and lifestyle tips below, you may be able to reduce symptoms to make life more comfortable.
How to ease stomach pains
What works for you may involve some trial and error but these are some of the most commonly helpful dos and don'ts.
What to do
- Laying down or reclining with your knees up can help to relieve gas and constipation
- Drink plenty of fluids throughout the day - between 8-10 glasses (unless you’ve been told to restrict your fluids)
- Chew each bite of food 30 times or until it has liquidated in your mouth before swallowing, which can make digestion easier
- Eat several smaller meals throughout the day rather than three large meals.
- If you feel cramping, try to relax and breathe deeply. This can help relieve pain.
- Sipping on warm water or peppermint tea can help encourage your body to release gas
- Peppermint essential oil, when used properly can also help stomach spasms
- Take medication with food unless advised otherwise
- Eat plenty of fibre such as whole grains, nuts and seeds, lots of fruit and vegetables or - if eating solid food is hard, soups and fresh fruit juices
- Try to exercise regularly. Gentle yoga stretches, a walk or just moving around more can give our digestive system a boost
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.
What to avoid
- Avoid eating your evening meal less than 5 hours before you go to bed
- Avoid spicy, fried or greasy food and try to stick to a more bland diet
- Avoid very sweet or sugary foods
- Avoid aspirin or medicines containing aspirin and NSAID’s unless your doctor has prescribed them
- Avoid drinking alcohol, caffeine and smoking cigarettes
- Lessen dairy intake as this could make gas worse in some people
If these things don’t help, or are experiencing any other symptoms at all, it might be a good idea to speak to your GP, healthcare team or provider to see if they are able to prescribe something that could help.
You should also contact your doctor if you are suffering from pain, swelling or hardness in your stomach, fever, nausea or vomiting, or if you have not had a bowel movement for 2-3 days despite following any advice given.
What to look out for
If you develop any of these symptoms, call your doctor immediately:
- Sudden abdominal pain
- Sudden abdominal swelling
- Feeling faint, weak and dizzy
- Fever of 38 C or higher (it's worth noting that different cancer centres define a fever with different temperatures, so it's best to check with them).
- Sudden vomiting or vomiting blood
- Loss of consciousness
- A stiff board-like abdomen
Do you have any tips for managing stomach pains during chemo, or are you looking for more advice? Visit the Live Better With cancer forum.
Related article: Why does chemo cause constipation? (plus tips for managing it)