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Changes to bowel habits

Many people with pancreatic cancer will notice changes in their bowel habits. This may be either constipation (problems opening the bowels), due to some of the pain relief medications, or sometimes loose stools or even diarrhoea (loose watery stools). 

Some people get a symptom called steatorrhoea which is caused by fat in the poo. Poo can be pale, oily, smell horrible, float and be difficult to flush down the toilet. This happens if your body can’t digest fat in your food properly – because the pancreas isn’t producing enough enzymes. Undigested food passing quickly through the body can also cause diarrhoea. Taking pancreatic enzyme supplements can help to relieve these symptoms.

Diarrhoea can cause dehydration quite quickly, so it’s important for your family member to drink plenty of fluids. This can include water, diluted squash, diluted fruit juice or milk. Small, frequent sips can be easier than bigger drinks. When someone is dehydrated they also lose salts and sugars. A sugary drink and salty snack can help. Or try rehydration products which can be bought at the chemist’s or prescribed by the GP.

What is dehydration?

Dehydration happens when the body loses more water than it takes in. It might happen if someone is sick a lot and can’t keep down any fluids, or if they have diarrhoea (runny, watery poo). It is especially a concern when someone has diabetes.

Signs of dehydration include:

  • dark coloured urine (pee) and passing less urine
  • a headache
  • feeling dizzy or light headed
  • feeling thirsty.

What if bowel problems don't improve?

Bowel problems should improve over time, particularly if you use pancreatic enzyme supplements. If the problems continue you may need to talk to your specialist or dietitian about adjusting the dose of enzymes, how you are taking them, or changing to another brand.

Contact the medical team if bowel problems don’t improve or get worse.

Published June 2017

To be reviewed June 2019

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