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The side effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatment can cause a number of eating problems that can prevent patients from getting the nutrition they need to fight infection and aid their recovery. In addition to a lack of appetite and nausea, complications include sores or pain in the mouth and throat, dry mouth and changes in the taste buds that make many foods unappealing.

Most treatment centers now offer nutritional counseling to help patients cope with side effects and maintain a healthy diet while undergoing chemo or radiation. Some types of cancer (esophageal, intestinal, etc.) have very specific guidelines for nutrition. In some cases where eating is impossible, nutritional therapy may help, in the form of nutritional supplement drinks, alternative feeding methods (by tube or bloodstream) and medication.

The following are some practical tips for dealing with the most common problems associated with eating and cancer treatment Be sure to check with your doctor or nutritional counselor first to see if you have any specific concerns.

Lack of Appetite

It's common to feel no desire to eat, but it's essential to your health. Become committed to eating as well as you can.

  • Eat small meals throughout the day, rather than trying to consume three large ones.
  • Listen to your internal clock. If you know your appetite's strongest in the morning, make the most of it with a large breakfast.

Dry Mouth

This is one of the most common side-effects of treatment. Fortunately, there are ways to help you combat it.

  • Brush your teeth with a soft toothbrush at least four times a day, and always after you eat. Floss gently daily.
  • Rinse your mouth, avoiding products with alcohol.
  • Keep your lips moisturized as well.
  • Consider trying Biotene's dry mouth gum or a mouth-moisturizing gel such as Oralbalance.
  • Choose foods that are moist or add extra sauce, dressing or gravy.
  • Keep hard candy and ice chips handy, and carry water with you throughout the day.
  • Drink liquids through a straw.

Mouth and/or Throat Pain

In addition to dry mouth, you may experience throat pain or mouth sores that make eating painful and difficult.

  • Again, brush your teeth and rinse your mouth throughout the day.
  • Keep water with you and sip often.
  • Eat soft, tender foods that have been cooked well, making them easier to chew and swallow. Think: soft fruits, cottage cheese, yogurt, eggs, soups, mashed potatoes, oatmeal or pudding.
  • Avoid foods that are dry or coarse, such as crackers, cold cereal, raw vegetables and hard fruits.
  • Steer clear of foods that are spicy, salty or acidic, including citrus fruits, all of which may irritate your mouth or throat.

Changes in Taste

Patients often find, after treatment, that nothing tastes the same. These tips may help you cope.

  • Rinse your mouth out with water before each meal.
  • If you're experiencing a metallic taste in your mouth, using plastic silverware may help.
  • Citrus fruits can be refreshing - unless you have mouth sores that make them prohibitive.
  • Mints or gum can help keep your mouth feeling fresh.
  • Use more sugar in your foods to make them more palatable. (Note: If you are suffering from thrush because of your treatments, sugar can aggravate this condition.)
  • It may seem obvious, but indulge in your favorite foods.


  • Food odors can trigger nausea, so let others cook for you or get takeout.
  • Notice which foods cause the most nausea and avoid them.
  • Sip fluids and eat small meals throughout the day, especially bland, dry items like toast or crackers.
  • Don't lie down within an hour after eating to help minimize reflux.