Cancer Treatment Centers of America

Digestive issues

What are digestive issues?

Digestive issues may include constipation, diarrhea and stomach cramps. For cancer patients, such symptoms may be caused by a number of factors, including cancer type, pain medication, infection, lack of activity, diet and even some treatments, such as chemotherapy. For example, chemotherapy is designed to destroy rapidly growing cancer cells. However, some normal cells that grow quickly may also be targeted and subsequently damaged, including cells lining the intestine. These intestinal changes can cause digestive discomfort.

Digestive issues can be especially problematic for cancer patients undergoing treatment. Proper nutrition is vital to maintaining an optimal weight, and digestive issues can disrupt a patient’s ability to tolerate food. When such issues are not addressed, weight loss and malnutrition may result, hindering treatment efforts.

How likely are cancer patients to experience digestive issues?

According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, incidence of chemotherapy-induced diarrhea occurs in as many as 50-80 percent of treated patients, depending on the chemotherapy regimen used. Diarrhea is a very common symptom, according to the journal Therapeutic Advances in Medical Oncology, occurring in up to 60 percent of cancer patients, regardless of the type of drug therapy used.

How can integrative care help?

Several integrative care services may help alleviate constipation, diarrhea and other digestive issues. 

Naturopathic Medicine

Herbal extracts, teas, digestive enzymes, probiotics and dietary supplements like vitamins, minerals and amino acids may help digestive upset. Naturopathic therapies also consist of homeopathic preparations, such as low-dose plant extracts and minerals designed to strengthen the body’s healing process and promote natural immune response. Naturopathic clinicians at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) work directly with the patient’s medical oncologist and care team to reduce potential interactions that prescribed medications may have with herbal or nutrient supplements. Our naturopathic doctors, trained specifically to work with cancer patients, may recommend that certain supplements be avoided if the patient is taking a regimen of chemotherapy drugs.

Nutrition Therapy

Our dietitians work with patients to alleviate digestive discomfort. Patients receiving chemotherapy and radiation therapy may experience diarrhea, which may discourage them from eating. Nutrition therapy interventions such as bulking stool with certain kinds of fibers and avoiding foods that speed up the digestive tract may be recommended. For patients experiencing constipation, added fiber is not always the answer and may make the symptoms worse. Our experienced clinicians can work with the patient’s care team to determine if a laxative agent or stool softener may be appropriate. Dietitians also work closely with gastroenterologists when feeding tubes have been prescribed.

Oncology Rehabilitation

Patients dealing with constipation from treatment may find that exercise and mobility help get the GI tract moving. Physical therapy exercises may involve light range-of-motion movements, either from the bedside for those who are not mobile, or in combination with walking. Abdominal massage by a trained therapist is another tool available to address constipation.

Pain Management

Constipation and diarrhea may result from treatment or as a side effect of certain pain medications. As physicians, the pain management specialists at CTCA® are equipped and trained to recommend and write prescriptions for certain medications that may help alleviate these symptoms. The pain management team also works closely with other integrative care providers to assess the patient’s needs and to recommend other options, such as massage or physical therapy, which may help address digestive discomfort.