Can Cancer Paralyze the Digestive Tract?

Although cancer has been around for thousands of years, to this very day, it remains as complex and dumbfounding as ever. This enfeebling disease can cause several complications, such as damaging organs or tissues far beyond the primary tumor growth.

In particular, digestive tract paralysis (DTP) is one such cancer complication continuing to baffle researchers. Often requiring a lifetime of management, this lesser-explored “side effect” creates more challenges to a cancer patient’s well-being, even after reaching remission.


What is digestive tract paralysis?

Digestive tract paralysis describes the impairment or complete cessation of normal movement and functionality within the digestive system. It can impact any part of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, including the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and large intestine.

DTP conditions can be chronic and incurable. Only changes in diet, along with medication, may offer some relief.


What are the different types of digestive tract paralysis?

In cancer patients, three of the leading digestive tract paralysis conditions include:


1. Gastroparesis

This condition is commonly mistaken as a synonymous term for digestive tract paralysis. However, they are different. Gastroparesis is actually a form of DTP.

In gastroparesis, the stomach’s afflicted or weakened muscles slow digestion, trapping food in the stomach instead of reaching the small intestine – the segment of the GI tract responsible for most of the digestive process. This delayed gastric emptying or impeded digestion can further deteriorate a patient’s health.

The symptoms of gastroparesis typically occur during and after a meal. They include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Dehydration due to constant vomiting
  • The body wanting to vomit but can’t (retching)
  • Feeling full, even after a small- or normal-portioned meal
  • Low appetite
  • Low energy levels due to low-calorie intake
  • Malnourishment resulting from poor absorption of nutrients
  • Unintended weight loss
  • GI bezoars, an accumulation of undigested material in the GI system
  • Poor quality of life

Some patients also experience heartburn, bloating, stomach pain, and constipation, although these symptoms are less common than the above.

What is the connection between gastroparesis and cancer?

Gastroparesis is a common cancer complication, although it is often disregarded or mislabelled as cancer cachexia or chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. In most cases, this disorder develops in patients with upper GI tumors associated with advanced pancreatic cancer – one of the most fatal malignancies worldwide.

According to a 2019 study, cancer-related gastroparesis may also arise as a result of immunosuppression, opportunistic viral infections in the GI tract, chemotherapy-induced neuropathy, celiac plexus block procedure, paraneoplastic myopathy or neuropathy, and as a sequelae of graft-versus-host disease following a bone marrow transplant.


2. Chronic Intestinal Pseudo-Obstruction (CIPO)

CIPO is a rare disorder of GI motility. It affects the muscles or canals that move food and other substances through the digestive system. This entire process, called peristalsis, creates wave-like movements to transfer food from the esophagus to the stomach. CIPO impairs peristalsis, obstructing digestion and nutrient absorption.

The symptoms of chronic intestinal pseudo-obstruction include:

  • Abdominal swelling (distention)
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Feeling full after a few bites of food
  • Food aversion
  • Alternating constipation and diarrhea
  • Malnutrition
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Decreased energy levels due to limited calorie consumption

In addition, some individuals with CIPO may experience frequent bacterial infections and muscle problems in different areas of the body. They may also develop bladder disease over time.


What is the connection between chronic intestinal pseudo-obstruction and cancer?

Paraneoplastic syndromes (PNS) and cancer are interrelated. Both reflect the interplay between tumor cells, host cells, and immune system cells.

According to the findings of a 2017 analysis, people with functional ileus – a medical condition where intestinal muscles are unable to contract or function as they should – may be at risk of developing PNS CIPO. Paraneoplastic CIPO is rare and deadly. Clinical researchers say it mainly affects patients with carcinoid tumors or small cell lung cancer, and the underlying cause could be inflammation in the nervous system. Moreover, untreated CIPO-induced primary cancer may lead to permanent brain damage


3. Colonic Inertia

This motility disorder is a specific type of constipation characterized by ineffective contractions of the colon’s muscle. It prevents the colon from modifying stool to an acceptable consistency, making it difficult or impossible to pass stool out of the body. Instead, the fecal matter remains in portions of the colon for several days at a time, often between 7 and 10 days.

Its symptoms include:

  • Lack of urgency to defecate
  • Abdominal pain and bloating
  • Bloody discharge
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

What is the connection between colonic inertia and cancer?

Evident in the information regarding gastroparesis and CIPO, chronic constipation or the inability to pass stool for several days is a cancer risk factor, a potential sign of cancer, and a cancer complication. In particular, research from the American College of Gastroenterology disclosed that having chronic constipation increases the risk of developing colorectal cancer and benign neoplasms.

Colonic inertia is a prevalent gastrointestinal complaint, resulting in over 2.5 million doctor visits each year. Undergoing routine screenings for cancer-related signs and symptoms, as part of the diagnostic workup for constipation, can be a prudent course of action.


The bottom line on cancer and digestive tract paralysis

Failure to treat or manage conditions related to digestive tract paralysis can result in significant health complications. While these conditions are rare, it remains crucial that individuals who experience any symptoms or a combination of those outlined above take the initiative to consult with a gastroenterologist. Timely intervention can prevent the health- and quality of life-diminishing complications associated with these conditions.


What if I have cancer and early signs of digestive problems?

Don’t wait for cancer to take complete control of your life – seize the initiative now. Your health is your greatest asset, and early action is vital. Schedule a consultation with New Hope Medical Center to discover your alternative cancer treatment options. We have a team of specialists providing care and support for individuals diagnosed with cancer and related gastrointestinal complications.

Remember, by being proactive, you are doing more than bravely facing your diagnosis. You are also taking charge of your well-being and embracing a future full of hope and vitality.

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