Constipation is having trouble opening your bowels. This can mean going less often than usual, or having hard bowel motions (stools or poo) that are difficult to pass.
Some cancers, cancer treatments and pain medicines can cause constipation. This can usually be managed. However, severe constipation can occasionally lead to a bowel obstruction.
Use the contact numbers you have been given. If you can’t get hold of anyone, go to your nearest hospital emergency department for assessment.
Know what to expect
Not all cancers or cancer treatments cause constipation. Ask your doctor or nurse whether you are likely to become constipated and how to manage it.
Understand your medications for constipation
Make sure you know what medications to take to relieve constipation and when to take them. These are called aperients or laxatives.
If you have questions about medications, you can speak to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist.
Start a symptom diary
Keeping track of your symptoms can help you and your cancer care team to manage them better.
Talk to your doctor or nurse to see if there is a diary they recommend, or use the example provided on this page.
Know who to contact if you have a problem
Ask your doctor or nurse:
- when you should call for help or advice
- who you should contact
- how to contact them (including at night or weekends).
Keep this information where you can easily find it.
The best way to control constipation is to treat it early.
Take any laxatives you have been given as prescribed. If you don’t have any, or the ones you have are not helping, contact your cancer care team for advice.
Apart from medication, constipation may be eased by drinking more liquids, diet changes and exercise.
Severe constipation can sometimes develop into a bowel obstruction or blockage.
Signs of a blockage can include:
- abdominal pain, cramps and swelling
- nausea and vomiting
- a dry mouth and bad breath
- liquid diarrhoea that can’t be controlled (this happens when liquid bowel motions leak around the blockage)
- a fever.
Bowel obstruction requires urgent treatment.
Occasionally, if you have severe symptoms, your doctor may discuss delaying or changing your treatment. See our Treatment changes page for more information.