Are loose bowels a side effect of cancer?

Tigerette asked...

When a person is diagnosis with esophageal cancer, what does it mean when they start losing their bowels? Is this a bad sign or it totally different from something else?

Expert Answer

Linda Ackerman, R.N. has clinical experience in oncology, women's health, and medical nursing. She has been practicing for more than 20 years and is a licensed registered nurse in both Florida and Wisconsin. In addition, she serves as a board member of Breast Cancer Recovery and the Wisconsin Cancer Council.

It depends on whether the person dealing with the cancer has just been diagnosed or is already undergoing treatment, such as chemotherapy or radiation. I will offer a response both for someone newly diagnosed with esophageal cancer and for someone undergoing treatment such as chemotherapy or radiation treatment.

If this person is recently diagnosed with esophageal cancer, he or she could have been experiencing dietary changes due to difficulty in swallowing foods. A change in diet, could affect the ability for the intestines to maintain the normal digestive process, which in turn could cause a change in their bowels.

Some people diagnosed with esophageal cancer select Enteral feeding, which are formula tube feedings to help maintain a nutritional balance. Enteral feedings often cause diarrhea and bowel incontinence. If this is the situation, you would want to consult the healthcare provider, physician and or a dietitian for help in possibly changing the rate or content of the feedings.

  • Chemotherapy, radiation and pain medications can each have an effect on the digestive system. Chemotherapy can affect the cells that line the intestine, and diarrhea may be the result. Depending on the type of chemotherapy, the diarrhea can be severe. I would recommend talking to the healthcare provider; physician or nurse for help with offering medications/additional treatments that can help decrease the severity of the diarrhea.

  • Radiation treatments may cause a dry, sore mouth and loss of appetite which in turn could also cause a change in diet affecting the normal digestive process.

  • Pain medications may cause slowness in motility (rhythmic contractions) which can affect the digestive track, causing constipation.

  • Emotional factors related to a diagnosis of cancer can contribute to a bowel changes as well.

I would encourage you to make an appointment with the healthcare provider, and or physician to find out if they can identify a specific cause and help to prescribe a treatment to hopefully alleviate this problem.