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Gastrointestinal Complications (PDQ®): Supportive care - Patient Information [NCI] - Constipation

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An assessment is done to help plan treatment.

The assessment includes a physical exam and questions about the patient's usual bowel movements and how they have changed.

The following tests and procedures may be done to help find the cause of the constipation:

  • Physical exam: An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. The doctor will check for bowel sounds and swollen, painful abdomen.
  • Digital rectal exam (DRE): An exam of the rectum. The doctor or nurse inserts a lubricated, gloved finger into the lower part of the rectum to feel for lumps or anything else that seems unusual. In women, the vagina may also be examined.
  • Fecal occult blood test: A test to check stool for blood that can only be seen with a microscope. Small samples of stool are placed on special cards and returned to the doctor or laboratory for testing.
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    Fecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) kit to check for blood in stool.
  • Proctoscopy: An exam of the rectum using a proctoscope, inserted into the rectum. A proctoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. It may also have a tool to remove tissue to be checked under a microscope for signs of disease.
  • Colonoscopy: A procedure to look inside the rectum and colon for polyps, abnormal areas, or cancer. A colonoscope is inserted through the rectum into the colon. A colonoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. It may also have a tool to remove polyps or tissue samples, which are checked under a microscope for signs of cancer.
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  • Abdominal x-ray: An x-ray of the organs inside the abdomen. An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.

There is no "normal" number of bowel movements for a cancer patient. Each person is different. You will be asked about bowel routines, food, and medicines:

  • How often do you have a bowel movement? When and how much?
  • When was your last bowel movement? What was it like (how much, hard or soft, color)?
  • Was there any blood in your stool?
  • Has your stomach hurt or have you had any cramps, nausea, vomiting, gas, or feeling of fullness near the rectum?
  • Do you use laxatives or enemas regularly?
  • What do you usually do to relieve constipation? Does this usually work?
  • What kind of food do you eat?
  • How much and what type of fluids do you drink each day?
  • What medicines are you taking? How much and how often?
  • Is this constipation a recent change in your normal habits?
  • How many times a day do you pass gas?
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