The bowel is the part of the digestive system that goes from the stomach to the back passage (anus). It is a hollow tube.
Where the bowel is
The bowel is the lower part of the digestive system. The digestive system is also called the gut or gastrointestinal tract (or the GI tract or GIT for short).
The digestive system processes all the food we eat and breaks it down into nutrients for the body. It also gets rid of any solid waste matter from the body in the form of poo (also called faeces or stools).
The bowel is divided into the small bowel (or small intestine) and the large bowel (or colon and rectum). The small bowel is where you digest and absorb the nutrients from the food you eat. The large bowel absorbs water from the digested food and forms poo (stools).
Nearly all the problems you are likely to have from cancer are related to the large bowel. It is possible in theory to get a blockage (obstruction) of the small bowel, but it is very rare.
What factors affect the bowel
Normal bowel function is affected by a number of different things:
Muscles and nerves
The nerves or muscles in your back passage help you have normal bowel movements. So if treatment or illness damage these nerves and muscles, you may have some difficulty passing stools.
The abdominal and intestinal muscles also play a part in moving the stools down into your rectum.
Eating and drinking
You need a certain amount of fluid in your body for your bowel to work properly. If you don’t have enough fluid in your body, you can get dehydrated. This can make it difficult to have a normal bowel movement. So it is important to drink about 2 litres (about 8 tall glasses) of water each day.
What you eat also affects your bowel motions. Eating a diet high in fibre with lots of fresh fruit and vegetables will help keep your stools soft and regular.
Remember to drink plenty of water if you are eating more fibre. Fibre draws water into the bowel so you could get dehydrated if you don’t drink enough.
A lack of daily exercise can reduce the muscle tone in your abdomen and bowel (intestines). This slows down the movement of stools through the gut. So taking regular exercise helps to keep your bowel working properly. Ways to exercise could include using the stairs rather than the lift, or getting off the bus one stop early,
The way your bowel works tends to change with age. Bowel problems are more common in the elderly. Understandably, elderly people can become less active. They may also eat less fibre and not drink enough water. This can weaken their abdominal and bowel muscles.
Many condtions other than cancer can change the way your bowels work. With the right treatment, your doctor can usually control conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease, piles (haemorrhoids) and infections.
How cancer treatment affects the bowel
Constipation and diarrhoea are common side effects of many drugs used in cancer treatment. Your doctor or nurse should talk to you about the side effects of any new drugs they prescribe for you.
Radiotherapy to the pelvic area or to the back passage (rectum) can cause diarrhoea. This usually comes on shortly after the treatment starts and lasts for a few weeks after the course of treatment has finished. Your doctor or nurse may give you tablets to slow down your bowel and try to prevent diarrhoea.
Let your doctor or nurse know if you notice any of these side effects. They will be able to give you advice about how to treat them.