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  • Bowel Cancer Symptoms Management

    Last reviewed January 2013

    Changes to bowel habits

    After treatment for bowel cancer most people find teir bowel function changes. This can include:

    • Softer more frequent bowel actions
    • Difficulty emptying the bowel
    • Urgency and urge incontinence
    • Increased flatus (gas generated in the stomach or bowels and realised through the anus)
    • Constipation.


    The movement of waste through the large bowel can become considerably faster after surgery or radiotherapy. This can mean you need to go to the toilet more urgently and may result in a loss of control over bowel motion (faecal incontinence).

    It is common to have incontinence after bowel cancer treatment that may include temporary bladder and/or bowel incontinence For example, radiotherapy to the abdomen can irritate the lining
 of your bladder, which is near your large bowel. Talk to your health care team about whether or not the changes to your bowel or bladder habits are long-term.

    Bowel function is at its worst immediately after bowel surgery (or the closure of a temporary colostomy or ileostomy if you have had one constructed). Bowel function often improves quite rapidly in the first few months and can continue to do so for up to one year.

    There are some hints to manage incontinence.

    • Carry a spare pair of underwear and some cleansing wipes
    • Wear a pad or disposable undergarment
    • Ask your doctor if there are any medications to treat incontinence
    • Talk to a dietitian about ways to improve your diet
    • Visit www.toiletmap.gov.au to locate public toilets
    • Contact the Continence Foundation of Australia for additional 
information and support. Go to www.continence.org.au or call 1800 33 00 66.

    Talk to your doctor if bowel cancer symptoms are distressing or changing.

    Visit www.bladderbowel.gov.au for a copy of the resource ‘Improving bowel function after bowel surgery’.

    Information reviewed by:  Karen Barclay, Colorectal Surgeon, The Northern Hospital, Lecturer in Surgery, University of Melbourne, VIC; Carole Arbuckle, Cancer Nurse, Cancer Council VIC; Karen Bowers, Eat it to Beat it Strategy Project Officer, Cancer Council NSW; Darrell Bowyer, Consumer; Rebecca Foot-Connolly, Stomal Therapy Nurse, The Alfred Hospital, VIC; Bernadette Hadfield, Stomal Therapy Nurse, The Alfred Hospital, VIC; Melissa Heagney, Media and Communications Advisor, Cancer Prevention Unit, Cancer Council VIC; Dorothy King, Consumer; and Loreto Pinnuck, Stomal Therapist, Wound Consultant, Paediatric Continence Specialist, Monash Medical Centre, VIC.


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