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Cancer Health Center

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

Table 3. National Cancer Institute's Common Terminology Criteria for Adverse Events: Nausea and Vomitinga continued...

In addition to antidiarrheal agents and immunosuppressive medications, a specialized five-phase dietary regimen may be instituted to effectively manage the diarrhea associated with GVHD.[24] Phase 1 consists of total bowel rest until the diarrhea is reduced. Nitrogen losses associated with diarrhea can be severe and are compounded by the high-dose corticosteroids used to treat GVHD. Phase 2 reintroduces oral feedings consisting of beverages that are isotonic, low-residue, and lactose-free to compensate for the loss of intestinal enzymes secondary to alterations in the intestinal villi and mucosa. If these beverages are well tolerated, phase 3 may reintroduce solids containing minimal lactose, low fiber, low fat, low total acidity, and no gastric irritants. In phase 4, dietary restrictions are progressively reduced as foods are gradually reintroduced and tolerance is established. Phase 5 includes the resumption of the patient's regular diet; however, most patients usually remain lactose intolerant.


Probiotics are nutritional supplements that contain a defined amount of viable microorganisms and, upon administration, confer a benefit to the patient.[39] The use of probiotic functional foods (beneficial live microorganisms) to modify gut microflora has been suggested in clinical conditions associated with diarrhea, gut-barrier dysfunction, and inflammatory response.[40] There are a vast number of different strains of probiotics; however, much of the clinical research has investigated the species belonging to the family of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Probiotics have been promoted for the following:[41,42,43,44,45,46]

  • Prevention of antibiotic-induced diarrhea and rotavirus.
  • Treatment or prevention of inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and gastroenteritis.
  • Treatment of necrotizing enterocolitis in premature infants.

The results of one study among adults with cancer have been published. In a double-blind, randomized, controlled trial, 450 adults with cancer who were receiving radiation to the pelvic region were randomly assigned to receive the blend probiotic product VSL #3 or placebo during radiation therapy. The authors reported a decrease in the incidence and severity of diarrhea. No adverse events were reported.[47]

Clinical trials for the following patients are under way:

  • Patients with familial adenomatous polyposis (NCT00319007).
  • Patients undergoing donor stem cell transplantation for hematologic cancer or myelodysplastic syndrome (NCT00946283). This trial is now closed to accrual.
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