What you eat during your cancer journey can make a big difference in how you feel and in your recovery. Even though you may have side effects that affect your appetite and ability to eat, it's important to “eat right” to keep up your strength and immune system. If you feel that your diet is especially a problem, we can refer you to a registered dietician who can help you plan a program to get the nutrition you need to best fight your cancer – in many cases, your insurance will pay for these visits. Also, we have nutrition brochures/booklets with many helpful hints as well as recipes – if you'd like to have one, just ask.
The following are some general tips about nutrition for cancer patients and also about eating around such side effects as nausea or mouth soreness. For more detail on treatment side effects that cause dietary problems, go to the managing side effects section of our website.
- Nutrition for cancer patients usually involves higher calorie foods and more protein – not the usual fruits and vegetables. Protein helps you keep your strength, and helps to repair tissue damage done by cancer treatments.
- Eat when you are able to. If you feel best in the morning, eat your biggest meal then. On the days when you are not able to eat, do what you can – liquid meal replacements are an option. If you are not able to eat for more than a couple of days, you need to let the doctor know.
- Drink plenty of fluids, especially when you don't feel like eating. “Fluids” does not mean just water – you can also drink/sip broth, fruit juices, ice cream or yogurt, sports drinks and many other options. But, during meals, don't fill up on liquids if you’re able to eat solid food.
- Keep easy snacks handy for when you feel like eating – peanut butter crackers, puddings and muffins are good choices, as are small boxes of dried fruits.
- Some patients, particularly breast cancer patients, may gain weight during treatment. If you have gained weight, check with your doctor before you go on a low calorie diet. While a restricted diet may be appropriate for some patients, if you have gained weight because of edema, or fluid retention, then other measures must be taken.
- Sore mouth or throat may result from either radiation or chemotherapy treatments, but always check with the doctor to make sure that your pain is not from a dental problem. The doctor may also be able to give you medication that can reduce or eliminate mouth and throat soreness. If you are still having problems, though, it may be easier for you to eat soft foods like ripe fruits or applesauce, puddings, cottage cheese, macaroni and cheese or mashed potatoes, cooked cereals and scrambled eggs. Avoid acid foods like citrus fruits or tomato sauces, crunchy or rough foods and spicy foods.
- Cancer treatment may also cause dry mouth, which makes it more difficult to chew and swallow food. In addition to the eating tips for sore mouth or throat, you can also do the following: sip water every few minutes, suck on hard candies or chew gum to help make more saliva, and eat pureed foods or food with gravy or sauce to make it easier to swallow.
- Sometimes cancer or cancer treatment can change the way you taste or smell foods, making it difficult to enjoy foods that you used to enjoy. Although these changes usually go away once you're finished with treatment, you can better cope with the problem by: eating foods that taste good to you now, trying other foods that may not be as strongly flavored, or experimenting with different seasonings and marinades to make food more flavorful.
- Nausea, whether caused by your cancer or by your treatment, can make it difficult for you to get the nutrition you need. Talk to your doctor if you have nausea, because there are drugs that you can take that can prevent it from occurring. If you still are having problems, try these hints: eat foods that are easy on your stomach such as toast, cooked cereals, bland fruits or vegetables, sodas and yogurt. Avoid spicy, fried or strongly flavored foods. Eat small amounts frequently so that you will not get hungry, which can make your nausea worse, and rest, sitting up, after your meals.
- Vomiting may be brought on by your treatment or other things. If vomiting lasts for more than a day or so, call the doctor, who may be able to prescribe something to calm your stomach. Most of the time if you are able to control your nausea (above), you will not have vomiting, but sometimes it still happens. If you are vomiting, there are a few things you can do to try to keep from vomiting again: don't eat or drink anything until you have your vomiting under control; after that, try taking small sips of clear liquids – bouillon, clear sodas, etc. – for example, 1 teaspoon every 10 minutes, working up to 1 tablespoon every 20 minutes, and then 2 tablespoons every 30 minutes. When you're able to keep clear liquids down, you can move to a full-liquid or soft diet, still eating only small amounts. Once you're feeling better, you may work into your regular diet.
- Diarrhea can be caused by your treatment and also other things such as emotional upset. As severe or long-term diarrhea can lead to dehydration, call your doctor if your diarrhea has lasted more than a couple of days. Some tips for coping with diarrhea include: drinking lots of fluids to replace what you have lost, eating smaller meals throughout the day instead of 3 big meals; and, eating/drinking foods high in sodium (bouillon) and potassium (bananas, apricot nectar or mashed potatoes). Sports drinks such as Gatorade also can help replace sodium and potassium you may have lost during a bout of diarrhea. In addition to following a low-fiber diet, you may also want to avoid very hot or very cold foods or drinks, and stay away from caffeinated products such as coffee, tea and some sodas. For some people, milk also can make diarrhea worse.
- Constipation can be caused by prolonged bed rest, too little fiber or liquids in your diet, or by certain pain medications that you may be prescribed during your treatment. Some tips to prevent constipation are: getting enough liquids every day to help keep your stools soft – at least 8 8oz glasses every day, drinking hot beverages may help to spur a bowel movement, and increasing the fiber in your diet (check with the doctor to make sure that this is okay to do). Also, getting a little bit of exercise every day can help – ask the doctor if you may exercise and what type is best for you. If you have constipation that won't go away, the doctor may be able to recommend medicines that can help – do not take laxatives or other preparations before talking to the doctor.
- Depression or fatigue from both your cancer and its treatment may leave you feeling not much like eating. You need to let your doctor know if you're down or exhausted, because it may be treatable. While fatigue and depression are not nutrition problems themselves, they may cause you to lose interest in food, which can cause nutrition problems. Some things you can do:
- Get enough rest – don't push yourself, take naps and make your rest times special by doing (restful) things you enjoy
- Get some exercise, with the doctor's permission. A short walk may raise your spirits and ease your fatigue
- Get support – when you can express your fears, and gain some control through knowledge about your disease and treatment, you'll be more able to cope, and better able to eat
- Save some of your favorite foods for times when you can enjoy them – not close to a treatment time.
- Vitamins, minerals and alternative therapies – while cancer patients need to eat well during their treatment to help them keep their strength and to better fight their cancer, there is no evidence that certain vitamins, minerals or herbs, or large amounts of vitamins or minerals, will cure cancer or prevent its possible return. In fact, some vitamins, etc. may even cause your treatment to not work the way it should. Always talk to the doctor about any of these products that you're considering before you take them and follow his instructions.
Once your treatment ends, most eating related side effects will go away, and you should start to feel better – including getting back your interest in food. But, in order to help you regain your strength, and feel your best – you need to follow a healthy diet, including:
- Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, which provide vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that you need
- Whole grain breads and cereals are good sources of fiber, as well as additional nutrients
- Don't indulge in alcohol, sugar, high fat foods, salty foods and smoked or pickled foods. Choose low-fat proteins and eat small portions.
- Don't overdo in the kitchen; start off with easy recipes and prepare enough for leftovers so that you don't have to cook as frequently. Also, ask for help with shopping, and buy healthy “ready to go” items at the grocery store.
The important thing to remember about nutrition and food while you're in cancer treatment is that what you eat can help you feel your best during your treatment and aid in your recovery. Sometimes treatment side effects will hamper your efforts to eat well; you need to let your doctor know when this happens because many times, the side effects can be minimized or eliminated. If you have further questions about your diet and cancer, talk to your doctor, who can recommend additional resources for you.