Diet after bowel cancer

During surgery to remove the tumour, a section of your bowel will have been removed. How much is removed varies from patient to patient, depending on the size and location of the tumour, but your digestive system is now learning to function again with this section of bowel missing. For some people, their body also has to adapt to the formation of a stoma during their operation.

This will inevitably lead to some changes in your bowel habit, although these changes will be more apparent for some. People can also experience changes whilst having chemotherapy or during and / or after a course of radiotherapy.


Common problems

The two most common problems for patients during and after treatment are diarrhoea (passing loose stools) and urgency– when you need to go, you need to go now. Occasionally, surgery for very low rectal cancers can cause problems with incontinence, and you may experience leaking from your bottom too. At the other extreme, other people find that they are now constipated.


It is important to manage your own expectation and be aware that it is unlikely your bowels will be exactly the same as they were before the operation. It might take a period of a few weeks or months to set into a ‘new normal’ routine and it’s important to be patient – however difficult this might be.


Managing bowel problems through diet

It might be a good idea to keep a ‘food diary’ so you can record:

  • What you eat
  • When you eat
  • The effect the food has on your bowels (including what happens and when it happens).


You may then be able to identify patterns and remove the foods that cause any problems from your diet.


Foods that may ease diarrhoea: bananas (very ripe), boiled rice, marshmallows, jelly babies, porridge, smooth peanut butter, mashed potato, white bread, pasta, gelatine, yogurt, eggs.


Foods that may ease constipation: apricots, beans, bran, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, caffeinated drinks, chocolate, coffee, garlic, onions, peaches, peppers, plums, prunes, spinach, sweetcorn, spcies, sugar free gum.


To a certain degree it will be a case of ‘trial and error’ to see what you can eat and what you can’t. You may also find that foods you can’t initially tolerate can be reintroduced to your diet after a while with no problems. So don’t be too disheartened if your favourite food upsets your system – you may well be able to eat it again in the future.


If you find that you have lost your appetite and are struggling to put on weight, you may find that snacking on small, nutritious foods can help. See Lost Your Appetite for food suggestions.


Other ways to regain bowel control

Maybe you could try eating your main meal at lunchtime to reduce the number of times you need to get up during the night. Also remember to keep drinking a sufficient amount of water if you are experiencing loose stools so you don’t become dehydrated.


If your diarrhoea is linked to the side-effects of radiotherapy or chemotherapy, ask your nurse specialist for a suitable medication.  If you are no longer having treatment, loperamide is an effective way to control loose stools. It works by slowing down the passage of stool through your bowel which gives it time to absorb more water. This will help form stools and reduce the amount of times you need to go. It is usual to start on a low dose and build it up slowly over a few days so you can see how your body is responding.  Loperamide is a very safe drug, which is not addictive and can be taken long-term.


Watch Louisa our nurse answering your question “I was told that I should just eat normally now and that my bowel habit will go back to normal, but how long will this take?