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Cancer Health Center

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Gastrointestinal Complications (PDQ®): Supportive care - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Diarrhea

Table 2. Possible Contributions to Diarrhea in Cancer

Cancer-related[5,18]Carcinoid syndrome
Colon cancer
Medullary carcinoma of the thyroid
Pancreatic cancer, particularly islet cell tumors (Zollinger-Ellison syndrome)
Surgery- or procedure-related[14]Celiac plexus block
Cholecystectomy, esophagogastrectomy
Gastrectomy, pancreaticoduodenectomy (Whipple procedure)
Intestinal resection (malabsorption due to short bowel syndrome)
Chemotherapy-related[19,20,21]Capecitabine, cisplatin, cytosine arabinoside, cyclophosphamide, daunorubicin, docetaxel, doxorubicin, 5-fluorouracil, interferon, irinotecan, leucovorin, methotrexate, oxaliplatin, paclitaxel, topotecan, lapatinib
Radiation therapy-related (Refer to theRadiation Enteritissection of this summary for more information.)[22,23]Irradiation to the abdomen, para-aortics, lumbar, and pelvis
Bone marrow transplantation-related[24]Conditioning chemotherapy, total-body irradiation, graft-versus-host disease after allogeneic bone marrow or peripheral blood stem cell transplants
Drug adverse effects[5,18]Antibiotics, magnesium-containing antacids, antihypertensives, colchicine, digoxin, iron, lactulose, laxatives, methyldopa, metoclopramide, misoprostol, potassium supplements, propranolol, theophylline
Concurrent disease[5,18]Diabetes, hyperthyroidism, inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn disease, diverticulitis, gastroenteritis, HIV/AIDS, ulcerative colitis), obstruction (tumor-related)
Infection[25]Clostridium difficile, Clostridium perfringens, Bacillus cereus, Giardia lamblia, Cryptosporidium, Salmonella, Shigella, Campylobacter, Rotavirus
Fecal impaction[5,18]Constipation leading to obstruction
Diet[5,18]Alcohol, milk, and dairy products (particularly in patients with lactose intolerance)
Caffeine-containing products (coffee, tea, chocolate); specific fruit juices (prune juice, unfiltered apple juice, sauerkraut juice)
High-fiber foods (raw fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole-grain products, dried legumes); high-fat foods (deep-fried foods, high fat-containing foods)
Lactulose intolerance or food allergies
Sorbitol-containing foods (candy and chewing gum); hot and spicy foods; gas-forming foods and beverages (cruciferous vegetables, dried legumes, melons, carbonated beverages)
Psychological factors[18]Stress


Rapid, yet thorough, assessment of diarrhea is imperative because of the potentially life-threatening nature of diarrhea. Few standardized assessment tools are available, and studies suggest that, as a result, standardized assessment is rare in the clinical setting.[3] For a complete assessment, one author suggests obtaining background information from the patient that includes the type and extent of the patient's cancer, anticancer treatment, comorbid factors, coexisting symptoms, patient and provider perceptions, as well as a thorough description of the diarrhea. Stringent monitoring conducted at least weekly is indicated during therapy using chemotherapeutic agents known to cause diarrhea.[9] The NCI's Common Terminology Criteria for Adverse Events (Table 1) evaluate diarrhea by the following:[8]

  • Number of stools per day.
  • Incontinence.
  • Increase in ostomy output compared with baseline.
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