Chemotherapy is one of the treatment options that offer hope to many women with breast cancer. But it can also cause some unwanted side effects ranging from hair loss and constipation, to more serious complications. Accepting a diagnosis of breast cancer is difficult enough, and to add to that, the side effects related to its treatment can sometimes further demotivate patients.
But most people are better able to handle something when they understand what causes it and how they can manage it.
So let’s first try and understand why chemotherapy causes these disagreeable effects: chemotherapy agents kill dividing cells, and cancer cells divide more rapidly than normal cells. But some other cells in the body also divide rapidly, such as cells in the nail, hair, skin, blood cells and the lining of the digestive system, which are also targeted by the chemotherapy drugs. That’s what causes the hair loss, appetite change, skin and nail changes, nausea, vomiting, constipation, and other side effects.
But these normal cells can recover; that is why there is a gap between the two chemotherapy cycles—so cells can recover.
Also, chemotherapy side effects depend on the kind of chemotherapy and the dosage of the drug given. These side effects can vary from one individual to another, depending on the medical condition and the type of cancer, and can range from mild, to severe, or not at all.
One such side effect is constipation.
But if this is you, there are a lot of simple measures that you can follow to reduce and make this more manageable. Here are 5 handy tips to manage constipation related to chemotherapy:
1) Alter your diet and include more fibers: Try to include 20–35 grams of fibre in your daily diet (on an average, most people only have 11 grams), including high-fibre foods like apples, raisins, carrots, celery and whole-grain cereals. Choose whole wheat bread or whole rice pasta.
2) Drink lots of liquids: It is important to drink lots of fluids especially when you are consuming diet high in fiber. Drink at least 8 glass of water (about 240 ml each) in a day, unless you have been asked not to. Drinking lots of fluids including water, fruit juices and soups can help soften the stools making the passage easier.
3) Bowel routine: Have a hot or warm drink about 30 minutes before the usual time you visit the washroom
4) Be active: Though it may seem a little difficult, try to exercise a little—even a short walk can make a difference. Pursing gentle exercises regularly can also keep your bowel movements regular
5) Track it: Record your daily bowel movements and talk to your doctor about your constipation at your next visit, along with any other symptoms you may be experiencing.
If these do not help you and the constipation continues, please do not hesitate to ask for help from your physician. It is completely understandable that people are hesitant to talk about this, as they feel shy or embarrassed. But it is better to ask for help early because it means you can feel better sooner.
- Cancer Research UK. Breast cancer chemo side effects. Cited on 2016 June 14. Available from: http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/type/breast-cancer/treatment/chemotherapy/breast-cancer-chemo-side-effects
- National cancer institute. Gastrointestinal Complications (PDQ®)–Health Professional Version. Cited 2016 June 14. Available from: http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/side-effects/constipation/GI-complications-hp-pdq#link/_51_toc
About the author
Dr Rasika G Bhat, M.B.B.S , PG diploma in medical Genetics
Dr Bhat works as a medical communication specialist and presently work as senior manager scientific communication services in a full service providing healthcare communication agency. She is an educator in the field of medical genetics and a MUHS affiliated external Lecturer (medical genetics) at college of Nursing in the following in Bombay Hospital and Nursing College, Mumbai. As a member of the Genetics outreach Educator Network (GEON) with the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG), she aims to impart genetics education to various education and research institutes in India. She has co-authored book chapters, customized books and has contributed articles in medical magazines.