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Diarrhea: Cancer-related causes and how to cope
What can you do?
When you begin experiencing diarrhea, you can take action by modifying what you eat and drink. For instance, try to:
- Drink clear liquids. As soon as your diarrhea starts, switch to a diet of clear liquids, such as water, apple juice, clear broth and ice pops. Avoid milk products, as lactose intolerance may be part of your diarrhea.
- Eat low-fiber foods. As your diarrhea starts to improve, add foods low in fiber to your diet, such as bananas, rice, applesauce and toast.
- Eat frequent small meals.
- Eat foods that are high in potassium. Potassium is an important mineral that you can lose through diarrhea. Try eating bananas, potatoes and apricots to boost your potassium levels. If you have kidney problems, consult with your doctor before eating foods that are high in potassium.
- Avoid foods that can irritate your digestive tract. These include dairy products, spicy foods, alcohol, foods and beverages that contain caffeine, and foods high in fiber and fat.
As you start to feel better, you can slowly adjust your diet back to your normal fare.
What if dietary changes don't work?
If changes to your diet aren't reducing your discomfort from diarrhea, your doctor might prescribe medications to offer you relief. Common medications for cancer-related diarrhea include:
- Opioids. You might be familiar with opioids for pain treatment, but these drugs can also reduce your diarrhea by slowing movement through your intestines. Loperamide (Imodium A-D) causes fewer side effects than other opioids do, making it a common treatment choice.
- Anti-secretory agents. These drugs reduce the amount of fluid your body secretes, making your stools firmer. Examples of anti-secretory agents include aspirin, bismuth subsalicylate (Kaopectate, Pepto-Bismol), corticosteroids and octreotide (Sandostatin).
- Fiber. Adding fiber supplements may help ease some types of diarrhea. Discuss your options with your doctor before using fiber supplements.
Other medications are available, but what type you'll take will depend on the severity of your diarrhea and what's causing it.
Talking about diarrhea
Though discussing diarrhea with your doctor might be embarrassing, it's very important that you mention your signs and symptoms to your doctor. Diarrhea that accompanies cancer treatment can be serious. The sooner you tell your doctor, the sooner your doctor can act to help relieve your symptoms.Previous page
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- Gastrointestinal complications (PDQ) health professional version. National Cancer Institute. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/supportivecare/gastrointestinalcomplications/healthprofessional/. Accessed Feb. 24, 2012.
- Diarrhea. American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/Treatment/TreatmentsandSideEffects/PhysicalSideEffects/DealingwithSymptomsatHome/caring-for-the-patient-with-cancer-at-home-diarrhea. Accessed Feb. 24, 2012.
- Moynihan TJ (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. Feb. 28, 2012.