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Bowel issues after radiation therapy (radiotherapy)

Dealing with bowel issues after radiation therapy (radiotherapy) can be stressful and frustrating. If you're having some problems with your stools (or poo), it's important to learn how to handle them.
Radiation therapy can cause the lining of your bowels to become inflamed. Fortunately, these symptoms are rarely a severe or long term problem.
 

Types of bowel changes you
might experience:

  • diarrhoea

  • constipation

  • bloody stools

  • bloating, gas and abdominal pain

  • sensitivity to certain triggers (spicy foods/seeds and nuts)

  • feeling an urge to have a bowel movement (poo), but not being able to

  • feeling that your bowels haven’t emptied properly

Taking
charge

If you’re having bowel issues, don’t be afraid to speak up. Your doctors are there to help you and can prescribe a treatment tailored to your needs.

Here are some ways to take control:

  • Stay hydrated and drink plenty of water. If you’re having trouble with frequent trips to the bathroom, this will help get you back to normal from constipation. Fluids will also rehydrate you after having diarrhoea.

  • Avoid or decrease your intake of spicy and greasy foods, as well as coffee, tea, fizzy drinks and alcohol (these are all drinks that can irritate your digestive system).

  • If you have occasional urgent bowel movements, try keeping a food diary for a while. This might help you see connections between the foods you eat and the urgency of bowel movements.

  • Manage the stress of your side effects in a way that works for you. For some, that’s taking a quiet walk alone. For others, it’s doing breathing exercises or meditation. Find something that brings you a sense of calm and revisit it as often as you need.

  • If you’re losing control of your stools, give yourself some sense of security by having extra clothes available, in a gym bag, in your car or office.

If you are having any issues with bloody stools, there are a few things for you to consider:

  • Tell your doctor and make sure you’re up to date on your recommended colonoscopy screening.

  • Rectal bleeding gets worse when you’re constipated. Stay hydrated, and eat easy to digest high fibre food.

  • Haemorrhoids can be inside the rectum where you cannot see them or external under the skin around the anus. Straining with bowel movements can make both kinds of haemorrhoids flare and bleed. Though they’re not uncommon, you should tell your doctor what you’re experiencing.

While these changes to your body are uncomfortable, it’s important to remember that bowel issues are often temporary.

Talk to your doctor, nurse
or care team

If your bowel issues are bothering you and preventing you from doing your usual daily activities, speak to your doctor. This could be your family doctor, or doctor that’s been treating the cancer (such as a urologist or radiation oncologist). Your doctor may prescribe medications to help with either constipation or diarrhoea. You can also speak with a nurse (a continence nurse specialist, if available) about getting help.

In Australia, your GP can refer you to a local service that specialises in bowel issues.

Look for continence services
and resources online

The Continence Foundation of Australia is a good place to start, and has a database that you can search to find a service near you. There’s also a free helpline​ you can call if you need to talk or have questions.

Know where to
find a toilet

To help ease your mind and to make sure you know where to find toilets when you’re out, you can use a toilet finder tool to find the public toilet nearest you.

The Master Locksmiths Access Key (MLAK) offers a key that may help get you access to locked public toilets. If you live in Australia and meet the requirements, you can order a key using the online form.

What's next?

Now that you've read up on Bowel issues after radiation therapy (radiotherapy) , here are some related articles to explore as you continue to build your knowledge and understanding of this topic.
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