General cancer information


General cancer information

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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.

If you are constipated with a swollen abdomen, and are not able to pass wind, you need medical attention.

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.

Be prepared

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 in the resources 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.

checklist Checklists

Use our checklists to find helpful tips or questions to ask.

Managing symptoms

Managing constipation

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. 

Bowel obstruction

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 which leaks around the blockage
  • a fever.

Having a bowel obstruction requires urgent treatment .

Treatment changes

Occasionally, if you have severe symptoms, your doctor may discuss delaying or changing your treatment. See our Treatment changes page for more information.

checklist Checklists

Use our checklists to find helpful tips or questions to ask.

Where to get help

There are people you can talk to for more information or support.

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