You’re probably ready to cope with nausea during chemotherapy, but it can be hard on your digestive system too. Some people find that their bowel movements become less frequent or more difficult to pass. Simple strategies can help you prevent or relieve constipation.

Why Does Chemotherapy Lead to Constipation?

In some cases, chemotherapy may cause changes to the lining of the intestine leading to constipation. Changes in your eating habits or activity level may also trigger irregularity. Medications prescribed to manage other side effects of chemotherapy can also leave you constipated.

What Can I Do to Manage Constipation?

Constipation can be managed or prevented with the following changes to your diet or exercise routine:

Increase your fiber intake

About 25 to 50 grams of fiber is recommended per day. High-fiber foods include those rich in whole grains, like some breads and cereals. Fruits, vegetables, brown rice, and beans are also good choices. Nuts or popcorn make healthy, high-fiber snacks. Sweet potatoes have also recently been shown to prevent or relieve chemotherapy-related constipation.

Soluble fiber products, like Benefiber and Fiber Choice, are another way to increase your daily intake. For the best results, try taking these supplements in powdered form as opposed to capsules.

Drink plenty of water or juices

According to the Mayo Clinic, most women need about nine cups of water or other fluids per day. The American Cancer Society and National Cancer Institute say that warm beverages such as coffee or tea often help with constipation.

Get some exercise

Taking a walk or doing some light stretches or yoga can be beneficial for digestion. Just be sure to listen to your body and not overdo it.

Try over-the-counter stool softeners or laxatives

Stool softeners and laxatives are readily available and can provide relief. The American Cancer Society warns not to take these medications except at the advice of your doctor. These drugs may not be recommended for those with low white blood cell or platelet counts.

Ask about an enema

If you have severe constipation, ask your doctor about an enema, a procedure in which a liquid or gas is injected into the rectum. The MD Anderson Cancer Center recommends Fleet mineral oil enemas or powdered milk and molasses enemas for the relief of severe constipation. Enemas shouldn’t be used if you’re on chemotherapy and have a low platelet count.

When Should I Call the Doctor?

When it comes to bowel movements, everybody has a different regular or normal. If you’re eating less, you may notice a decrease in your bowel movements.

Still, it’s important to maintain regular bowel movements during chemotherapy. Hard stools and constipation can lead to bleeding if your blood counts are low. The National Cancer Institute recommends letting your doctor and healthcare providers know if you’ve not had a bowel movement in two days.