Nutrition tips for cancer patients

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology, Social Work

JANUARY 08, 2020

Chemo patients can usually tolerate comfort food like mac and cheese

Almost everyone experiences some appetite changes during cancer treatment. These range from changes in what sounds appealing to real difficulties in eating anything. Most often related to treatment, there can also be problems from the cancer itself. We all know that a common chemotherapy side effect is some degree of nausea or queasy stomach; radiation to the abdomen can result in stomach and GI issues; and recovering from surgery often includes disinterest in food for at least a few days. Changes in metabolism and cancer in the abdomen may result in appetite problems. These usually occur with more advanced cancers, but can happen in other situations, too.

Since food is usually one of life's pleasures and since we need food to fuel our bodies and help with recovery, this can be a major concern. Both chemotherapy and radiation kill some healthy cells along with the malignant ones, and our bodies need to repair and create new ones. If we aren't eating, we generally will feel weaker, lethargic, and generally less well. And, when we aren't feeling so well, it can be harder to think about appetizing foods.

It is often helpful to consult with a dietician who is knowledgeable about cancer-related food issues. At BIDMC's Nutrition Services, we have a team of experienced people who can be helpful. Most cancer centers have similar clinicians on their staff, so ask your doctor or nurse for a referral. Don't think that meeting with a dietician is only for people who are very ill; they can be reassuring and useful to anyone going through cancer treatment.

Cancer-related Nutrition Tips

  • Eat more smaller meals rather than planning three larger ones. Eat when you are hungry and try to eat even if you are not.
  • Ask your family and friends for help with meals. If you aren't feeling well, food shopping and preparation can be overwhelming. Be specific with your requests; tell them what sounds appetizing and ask for smaller portions.
  • Some people purposefully avoid their favorite foods. If you usually love tuna salad, you may not want to associate it with not feeling well.
  • Don't worry too much about the usual diet recommendations. Yes, eating junk food won't be good for you, but it sometimes is more important to eat something than to try to force down the brussel sprouts or broccoli. Ice cream almost always slides right down and tastes good.
  • Some people find that spicy foods are especially difficult while others find that spice and heat are just right. Experiment.
  • Drink fluids all day long, not just at meals. If plain water tastes yucky, fill a water bottle with fruit slices and then add the water. Carbonated water may be better than regular tap water. If you are trying to add calories, sip on frappes or nutrition drinks.
  • Cold or room temperature foods usually have less odor and taste than hot ones. If you are feeling nauseated, set your meals out early.
  • Try using smaller plates. Portions don't look so alarmingly large.
  • If you have a metallic taste in your mouth from chemo, suck on a lemon drop or other hard candy a few minutes before eating.
  • If you can, continue to walk or engage in other mild exercise. It will help your appetite.
  • Think about your own comfort foods. Yes, this is oppositional from the earlier advice about avoiding your favorites, but a poached egg on toast or tomato soup or whatever was soothing in your childhood may work now, too.
  • There is a joke about the ideal chemotherapy meal being mac and cheese, white bread, and mashed potatoes. Don't knock it before you have tried it.
Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.
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