Constipation

 

As a result of cancer treatments and medications, you may become constipated, having bowel movements that are delayed or infrequent.

If your doctor or nurse has prescribed or recommended over-the-counter medications, such as laxatives or stool softeners, be sure to take them as directed. For some cancer patients, it is better to prevent constipation with medications before it even starts. For others, simply making some small diet changes will be enough to manage constipation.

As always, do not take over the counter medications, including laxatives, unless directed by your health care team.

Constipation also can be helped by making smart nutrition choices. You can take charge of this common side effect by focusing on eating the right types of foods and drinking ample amounts of liquid. Increasing your physical activity by even a short walk each day may help keep constipation at bay, too. Ask your doctor if it's OK for you to do some light activity, such as walking.

For medical reasons, some people should not try the following nutrition tips. For example, if your constipation is due to a blockage in your intestinal tract, these changes could make your condition worse. If you have questions about your nutrition needs, talk to your health care team.

To reduce or prevent constipation:

  • Drink 8 to 10 cups of caffeine-free fluids every day. Try water, juices, and caffeine-free tea.
  • Try drinking more warm liquids, such as soup or tea.
  • Get liquid from your diet by including foods, such as soup and Popsicles.
  • Slowly add high-fiber foods to the diet (see the high fiber food list below for suggestions). Try whole-grain breads and cereals, fruits and vegetables with the skins and peels, and beans and peas. If you are eating your normal diet and you are not experiencing weight loss, try our high-fiber recipes for New Tuna Salad, Barley Apple Salad, and Lentil Sweet Potato Soup.
  • Add dried fruit such as apricots, raisins, dried plums (prunes), and dates to your diet.
  • If possible, try to be more active. Even a short walk each day can help your body process food better and decrease constipation.
  • Eat a good breakfast. Include a hot drink and high-fiber foods, such as bran cereals and whole grain toast.
  • If gas is a problem, avoid food and drinks that cause gas. Avoid carbonated drinks, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, dried beans, peas, onions, Brussels sprouts, Swiss chard, radishes, turnips, and watercress.
  • To prevent swallowing air, do not use a straw and avoid chewing gum.

Do Not... 

  • Use extreme force or straining in trying to have a bowel movement.
  • Use over-the-counter laxatives unless directed by your medical care team.
  • Eat foods that may worsen constipation, such as cheese and chocolate.
  • Use laxatives or enemas if your white blood cell count is low (immune-compromised), unless directed by your medical care team.

Call Your Medical Care Team If... 

  • You have not had a bowel movement in 3 days.
  • You have blood in your stool.
  • You do not have a bowel movement within 2 days of using a laxative.
  • You have persistent cramps, nausea, or vomiting.

Use the following food list to add more high-fiber foods into your diet.
Remember, if you have gas, some of these foods may not be right for you. 

A Few High-Fiber Foods: 

Food  Serving Size   Fiber Content (Grams) 
Breads/Cereals     
Bran cereal

 1/2 cup

 6-12

Raw wheat bran

1/4 cup

6

Popcorn (air popped)

2 cups

5

Oatmeal (cooked)

 1/2 cup

4

Whole oat bread

 1 slice

4

Whole wheat pasta (cooked)

 1 cup

3-7

Brown rice

 1/2 cup

3-6

Whole wheat bread 

 1 slice

2-5

Rye bread

 1 slice

2

Nuts/Seeds*     
Almonds

1 ounce 

4

Sunflower seeds

1 ounce

4

Peanuts

1 ounce

3

Pecans

1 ounce

2

Walnuts

1 ounce

2

Legumes (beans)     
Navy beans

1/2 cup

9

Kidney beans

1/2 cup

8

Lentils

1/2 cup

8

Peas (dried)

1/2 cup

8

Chickpeas (garbanzo beans)

1/2 cup

7

Soynuts

1 ounce

5

Peas (canned)

1/2 cup

4

Fruit   
Kiwi (with skin)

1 medium

5

Pear (with skin)

1 medium

5

Apple (with peel)

1 medium

4

Blackberries

1/2 cup

4

Raspberries

1/2 cup

4

Apricots (dried)

6 pieces

3

Orange

1 medium

3

Prunes

5 pieces

3

Raisins

1/4 cup

3

Banana

1 medium

2

Blueberries

1/2 cup

2

Peach (with skin)

1 medium

2

Strawberries

1/2 cup

1.5

  Vegetables     
Corn on the cob

1 ear

6

Broccoli

1/2 cup

4

Corn (loose kernels)

1/2 cup

4

Brussels sprouts

1/2 cup

3

Carrots

1/2 cup

2

Cauliflower

1/2 cup

2

Collard greens

1/2 cup

2

Green beans

1/2 cup

2

Kale

1/2 cup

2

Mustard greens

1/2 cup

2

Turnip greens

1/2 cup

2

Water chestnuts

1/2 cup

2


*One ounce of nuts is approximately one small handful
This content was last reviewed August 15, 2010 by Dr. Reshma L. Mahtani.
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