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Coping with IBS and Cancer

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can cause cramping, bloating, and a change in bowel habits. Dealing with IBS can be difficult to deal with when feeling well but during cancer treatment it can be even more of a challenge to manage. Diet is an essential part of managing IBS but sometimes finding what works can be confusing.


Back to Basics

Most people with IBS will have a set of a few things that they know always helps.  Try to focus on following those few things more regularly. Whether you normally stay away from any trigger foods, stay active, or limit sodas — try sticking to these known strategies that can be helpful so you can reduce the variables that may affect your IBS.

A FODMAP Diet is sometimes recommended for treatment of IBS but the diet can difficult to follow for someone undergoing cancer treatment. A recent study found that focusing on basic guidelines for IBS can be just as effective for managing symptoms of IBS as following a FODMAP diet [i]. 


Simple Ways to Manage Your IBS

  1. Eat 3 meals and 3 snacks a day – Focus on never being too hungry or too full. Keep a few snack foods that you know that you can tolerate with you at all times to help you on busy day or when you are waiting at doctors’ appointments.
  2. Eat in peace and quiet and  chew thoroughly – This isn’t always easy based on where you are for your meals or if you are rushing between appointments. Try imagining yourself in your favorite place or listening to some peaceful music while eating a snack.
  3. Eat fewer fatty foods – Fatty foods include fried or greasy foods or those with cream sauces; however these foods can be high in calories which may be helpful when trying to maintain your weight. Instead of eliminating completely try to eat smaller amounts and spread them throughout the day.
  4. Beware of gassy foods – Reduce intake of gassy foods like cruciferous vegetables (i.e. broccoli and cabbage), onions, and legumes.  These foods can be harder to digest.  Try to limit them to small amounts at your meals or stick to the ones that you know that are easier for you to tolerate.  
  5. Watch out for coffee and alcohol – Though coffee has been determined not to cause cancer, both coffee and alcohol can be a stimulant to your bowels and cause quicker movement of foods through your bowels. 
  6. Beware of -ol – Avoid soft drinks and carbonated beverages, chewing gums, and sweeteners that ends with –ol. Sodas and chewing gum can add gas to the intestines which can cause cramping. The sweeteners often can cause diarrhea or a belly ache.
  7. Eat fibers but distribute the intake evenly during the day – Often times those with IBS think that all fiber in their diet can cause pain but usually it can be tolerated but in smaller amounts spread throughout the day.  


The Bottom Line

Diet is an important part of managing IBS but complicated diets aren’t always the best choice.  Sticking to simple diet changes may make a bigger impact. When diet and lifestyle changes don’t help, be sure to talk to your healthcare team to see if there are any other options for relief.


[i] Böhn L, Störsrud S, Liljebo T, Collin L, Lindfors P, Törnblom H, Simrén M. Diet low in FODMAPs reduces symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome as well as traditional dietary advice: a randomized controlled trial.  Gastroenterology. 2015 Nov;149(6):1399-1407.
Heather Bell-Temin MS, RD, CSO

Heather Bell-Temin is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Specialist in Oncology Nutrition. She received a bachelor’s degree in food and nutrition from Florida State University and a master’s degree in nutrition from Louisiana State University. Heather has been working in the field of nutrition for over 15 years and specializes in the care of patients with gastrointestinal and and head and neck cancer. She was the recipient of the 2013 Connie San Andres-Robles Distinguished Service Award for her volunteer work for the Oncology Nutrition Practice Group. She is passionate about improving lives through nutrition and exercise.

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