A proper diet is your ally for cancer patients undergoing treatment, although you may not always feel like eating. The right food can go a long way toward alleviating treatment-related symptoms such as fatigue and weight loss and will help your body bounce back once treatment is over.
Unfortunately, the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation sometimes make it difficult to get excited about dining. In addition to leaving you weak and nauseated, these treatments tend to damage the delicate cells that line your mouth and gastrointestinal tract, altering the taste of food and making eating uncomfortable even when you are hungry. But changes in your food choices and eating patterns can help.
Most treatment centers now offer nutritional counseling to help patients cope with side effects and maintain a healthy diet while undergoing chemo or radiation. If you haven't already done so, ask your doctor for a nutrition referral so you can get individual guidance. The following will help you get started.
Be kind to your mouth.
Chemotherapy and radiation can leave your mouth dry and prone to sores and infection. You can preempt some of these problems by keeping your mouth well-lubricated and taking extra care of your teeth and gums.
- Brush your teeth with a soft toothbrush every time you eat. Periodic rinses with mouthwash are a good idea as well - just avoid products that contain alcohol, which will further dry your mouth.
- Keep a water bottle with you at all times and take a sip every few minutes.
- If you like gum, consider trying Biotene's dry mouth gum (available at Drugstore.com), which is designed to reduce mouth sugars and stimulate saliva production.
- If liquids alone don't help, try a mouth-moisturizing gel such as Oralbalance (available at DentalDepot.com), which can keep your mouth moist for up to eight hours.
Forget the food pyramid.
Standard nutritional advice doesn't necessarily apply when you're undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatments. Yes, you should eat plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains - but if you want to maintain a healthy weight in the face of nausea, taste changes and loss of appetite, rich, high-calorie foods are your new best friends.
Follow your internal clock.
You may find that your appetite is better at some times of day than others. Many cancer patients find that their appetite is best in the morning. So if you feel like having a burger and a milkshake for breakfast - go ahead. And if you don't feel like eating, don't force it.
Let others do the cooking.
Food odors trigger nausea in many cancer patients. Dining out, ordering in, or letting other family members cook is a good way to protect yourself (and enjoy some well-deserved pampering). When you do cook your own meals, stick to foods that aren't particularly pungent and be sure to eat in a room other than the kitchen.
Pour on the sauces!
Butter, salad dressings, gravies and rich sauces that you might have avoided before your diagnosis are the ideal condiments now. The added moisture is soothing to dry, sore mucus membranes, and the added calories can help you maintain a healthy weight.
Very hot or very cold foods will irritate sensitive tissues in your mouth and throat. Opt for cool or warm foods, such as salads, vichyssoise or gazpacho, whenever you can.
Keep your favorite foods on hand.
There are sure to be times when you simply don't feel up to cooking or going out to eat. Prepare for these occasions by stocking your home and office with snacks and ready-to-eat foods that you can grab when necessary. Include some bland items that will help quell nausea, such as saltine crackers, as well as calorie-rich favorites like ice cream.
Following nutritional diets for cancer patients may lower the effect chemotherapy has on the taste buds.
Additional Resources: Cookbooks and Nutritional Guides:
What to Eat If You Have Cancer: A Guide to Adding Nutritional Therapy to Your Treatment Plan (Maureen Keane, Daniella Chace, and John A. Lung)
The Non-Chew Cookbook (J. Randy Wilson)
The Cancer Recovery Eating Plan: The Right Foods to Help Fuel Your Recovery (Daniel W. Nixon, M.D.)
What to Eat When You Don't Feel Like Eating (James Haller)
Eating Hints for Cancer Patients: Before, During and After Treatment (National Cancer Institute)
Recipe: Cayenne Taffy
Capsaicin, the active ingredient in cayenne pepper, has long been used as a topical pain reliever. In 1994, a medical student at Yale University developed this recipe for a cayenne pepper taffy, which kills the pain of mouth sores and increases the flow of saliva without the "burn" normally associated with hot peppers.
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup light corn syrup
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Heat all ingredients except the vanilla and cayenne over medium heat, stirring constantly until the mixture reaches 265 degrees F. Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla and cayenne. When the mixture is cool enough to handle, butter your hands and pull the mixture until it is satiny and stiff. Pull into long strips, cut into 1-inch pieces, and wrap with waxed paper.