Nutrition is a very important part of your routine while undergoing cancer treatment. Good nutrition provides the right calories and nutrients to keep the body strong during a time when it needs strength, and it can help specific treatments be more effective.
Why is nutrition so vital during cancer treatment, and what are some and habits you can develop both before and during treatment?
Why It’s Important
A few basic things to keep in mind regarding cancer and nutrition include:
- • Cancer can change how the body uses food: Some tumors create chemicals that change the way the body processes nutrients, including protein, carbohydrates, and fat. A patient may seem to be eating the right amounts, but the body may not be able to absorb all the proper nutrients.
- Cancer treatments can affect nutrition: The effects of treatments like surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy or stem cell transplants can make it hard to eat well. Treatments can affect smell, taste, appetite and the ability to eat enough or absorb nutrients.
Due to the impacts of cancer on the body, anorexia and cachexia—weakness and wasting of the body due to severe chronic illness—are common causes of malnutrition for cancer patients. Weight loss caused by cancer and cancer treatment should be properly treated.
A focus on healthy foods before treatment begins can be very beneficial. Good nutrition will keep the body strong heading into treatment and can lower the risk of infections.
This is a good time to plan for days when preparing food will be difficult—fill the fridge and pantry with healthy options, including items that take very little preparation. Pre-make certain foods if you like, and consider enlisting friends and family to bring you meals for the first few weeks of treatment.
Some nutrition habits to encourage during cancer treatment include:
- Eat lots of protein: Protein can come from lean meats, chicken, fish, eggs, beans, nuts and dairy. Emphasize this especially on “good” days—days when you feel hungry. This will help keep the body strong and repair damage from treatment.
- Regularly consume fruits and vegetables: Try to eat at least two-and-a-half cups of fruits and vegetables per day. Look for dark green and deep yellow vegetables, and citrus fruits such as oranges and grapefruits.
- Drink fluids: Stay hydrated all day, starting with water. You can also use fresh-squeezed juice, which provides extra vitamins.
- Avoid harmful foods: Stay away from raw or undercooked meat, fish and poultry. Don’t eat foods or drink beverages that are unpasteurized.
- Adjust meal timing: When you’re hungry, eat. If you find that changing your dietary schedule helps you eat more, make these changes—some people find success with several smaller meals per day rather than two or three large ones, for instance.
- Eat a snack: Keep small, healthy snacks ready, such as yogurt, cereal, soup, or cheese and crackers. During chemotherapy treatments, a small snack right before sessions can help some people with nausea.
Managing Side Effects
The side effects of cancer treatments can make it tough to eat enough, but the right tactics can help you get past some of these problems:
- Nausea and vomiting: Stay away from foods high in fat, grease or spice, or any with strong smells. Try dry foods, like crackers or toast, and clear liquids including water, broths and sports drinks.
- Mouth or throat issues: These include sores, pain or difficulty swallowing that can affect some people. To prevent these, try soft foods, and avoid rough, scratchy, spicy or acidic foods. Eat meals at lukewarm temperatures and use a straw for liquids.
- Diarrhea and constipation: Stay hydrated to help prevent diarrhea—drink fluids and cut back on high-fiber foods like whole grains and vegetables. On the other hand, if you’re constipated, add more high-fiber foods to the diet slowly.
- Taste changes: Treatment can affect the taste buds, so be open to new foods and themes and don’t be surprised if your tastes change during treatment.
If you’re preparing for cancer treatment or wondering about nutritional advice during it, your doctor can offer specific recommendations.
*Note: No two cancer cases are alike. None of the statements herein are designed to suggest a “one size fits all” approach, and each case will be evaluated individually.
We provide the latest in cancer treatment and technologies, and work with you to determine the best treatment options at any stage of your treatment.