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

Table 2. Possible Contributions to Diarrhea in Cancer continued...

Assessment

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.

The history also includes questions regarding the frequency of bowel movements during the past 24 hours, the character of the fecal material, and the time course of the development of diarrhea.[26] One author has developed a visual tool to assist patients and families in characterizing the consistency of the stool.[27] Six diagrams illustrate fecal material consistency ranging from well-formed, formed, and semiformed to loose, very loose, and liquid.

Patients are questioned regarding related symptoms that might indicate hemodynamic compromise or the underlying etiology. Specific questions include information about the following:

  • Dizziness.
  • Orthostatic symptoms.
  • Lethargy.
  • Cramping.
  • Abdominal pain.
  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Fever.
  • Rectal bleeding.

These symptoms are classified as complicated or uncomplicated, with therapy based on these classifications.[28]

Uncomplicated symptoms include grade 1 or 2 diarrhea with no other signs or symptoms. Management is conservative.

Complicated symptoms include grade 1 or 2 diarrhea with any one of the following risk factors:

  • Moderate to severe cramping.
  • Grade 2 or higher nausea/vomiting (see Table 3).
  • Decreased performance status.
  • Fever.
  • Sepsis.
  • Neutropenia.
  • Frank bleeding.
  • Dehydration.

Grade 3 or 4 diarrhea is also classified as complicated. Thorough evaluation and close monitoring is warranted.[28]

The time course of diarrhea and concomitant symptom development are key to determining underlying etiology.[26] Medication and dietary intake, as well as a history of recent travel, may provide additional clues regarding etiology. Weight loss and reduced urine output provide additional data regarding the severity of the effects of diarrhea.

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