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QUESTION: Are you struggling with diarrhea?

Do you ever ask yourself: “Will I ever have regular bowel movements again?” “Should I just stop eating and drinking altogether?” “What can I eat that won’t make the diarrhea worse?”

You are not alone.

Diarrhea can be a common, yet unpleasant, side effect to cancer treatment and affects many people undergoing both chemotherapy and radiation. Chemotherapy targets the rapidly dividing cells of your gut and some radiation therapies may cause disruptions to digestion and absorption resulting in frequent bowel movements. Other causes for diarrhea include antibiotics, infections, vitamin C and magnesium supplementation, emotional stress or simply, the cancer itself.

Diarrhea is defined as loose or watery stools that occur more frequently than usual. When left untreated, diarrhea can lead to weakness, dehydration, electrolyte imbalances and weight loss. Be sure to notify your doctor if you are having more than six watery stools in a 24-hour period or your stools have an irregular color or odor.

When struggling with diarrhea:

  • Hydrate. Drink plenty of clear liquids like broth, diluted fruit juices, Popsicles and sports drinks that will help correct electrolyte imbalances. Aim to drink 8 ounces of fluid for each loose bowel movement.
  • Eat small five to six small meals and snacks throughout the day rather than three large meals.
  • Replace sodium in your diet with foods like soups, broth, saltines, pretzels and sports drinks.
  • Replace potassium in your diet with foods like bananas, mashed potatoes (without the skin) and sports drinks.
  • Choose mild and bland foods like applesauce, bananas, canned peaches and pears, oatmeal, white rice and white pasta as they are easy to digest and can help thicken your stool.
  • Opt for a low-fiber diet. Limit foods like bran, popcorn, whole grains, dried beans, broccoli, brussel sprouts, dried fruits or fruits and vegetables with their skin on. Once bowel habits have normalized, gradually increase fiber to your daily goal of 25-35 grams per day.
  • Don’t forget about protein. Try eggs or plain baked or broiled chicken, turkey or fish.
  • Avoid greasy, fried, overly fatty or overly sweet foods.
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol or foods that will cause gas (carbonated beverages, vegetables in the cabbage family, dried beans or peas).
  • Avoid foods, chewing gum or candies that have sugar alcohols (mannitol, sorbitol and xylitol) as they can exacerbate your symptoms and cause increased gas and bloating.
  • If you have diarrhea for more than two consecutive days, consider limiting dairy to no more than 2 cups per day. In some cases, prolonged diarrhea may cause temporary lactose intolerance.
  • Ask your doctor if a probiotic or antidiarrheal would be appropriate for you to take.

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Join us Thursday for our Fighting Cancer with Your Fork Class at 10 a.m. at the Mission Hope Cancer Center Conference Room. The topic will be Navigating the Holidays Without Sacrificing Your Waistline. To make a reservation, call 219-4673.

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Have a question for Your Cancer Answers, a weekly column produced by Marian Regional Medical Center, Cancer Program? Email it to

As a clinical registered dietitian, Shannon Burman works with cancer patients at the Mission Hope Cancer Center to provide appropriate nutritional counseling, information and recommendations at no charge. She can be contacted at 219-4673.