Constipation is the infrequent or difficult passage of hard stool , which often causes pain and discomfort. It’s caused by too little fluid or not enough movement in the bowel. Lack of activity, weakness, ignoring the urge to move your bowels, pain medicine, or poor fluid intake can all add to this problem.

What to look for

  • Small, hard bowel movements
  • Leakage of soft, liquid stool that looks like diarrhea
  • Stomach ache or cramps
  • Passing a lot of gas or frequent belching
  • Belly looks blown up or puffy
  • No regular bowel movement within the past 3 days
  • Vomiting or nausea
  • Feeling of fullness or discomfort

What the patient can do

  • Drink more fluids. Pasteurized fruit juices and warm or hot fluids in the morning are often helpful.
  • Ask your cancer care team to help you set up a daily bowel care plan. They might suggest you use over-the-counter products such as stool softeners or fiber supplements. Try to eat at the same times each day. If possible, try to move your bowels at the same time every day. 
  • Keep track of bowel movements so that problems can be noticed quickly.
  • If it's ok with your cancer care team, eat more high-fiber foods every day, such as whole-grain breads and cereals; fresh raw fruits with skins and seeds; fresh raw vegetables; fruit juices; and dates, apricots, raisins, prunes, prune juice, and nuts.
  • Avoid foods and drinks that cause gas, such as apples, avocados, beans and peas, cabbage, broccoli, milk, and fizzy drinks, until the constipation is gone.
  • Using straws to drink and chewing gum can also cause gas.
  • Avoid or cut back on any foods that make you constipated, such as cheese or eggs.
  • Get as much light exercise as you can.
  • Do not use enemas or suppositories. Always ask your cancer team before using stool softeners or laxatives.
  • Go to the bathroom as soon as you have the urge.

What caregivers can do

  • Offer prune juice, hot lemon water, coffee, or tea to help make bowels move.
  • Encourage extra fluids.
  • Help keep a record of bowel movements.
  • Offer high-fiber foods, such as whole grains, dried fruits, and bran.
  • Ask the cancer team before using laxatives.

Call the cancer team if the patient:

  • Has not had a bowel movement in 3 days
  • Has blood in or around the anal area or blood in the stool.
  • Hasn’t moved bowels in 1 or 2 days after taking a laxative
  • Has belly cramps or vomiting that doesn’t stop


The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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Last Medical Review: June 8, 2015 Last Revised: July 29, 2019

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