If you’re undergoing cancer treatment, a proper diet can be your ally — even though 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; it can also 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 liquids alone don’t help, try a mouth-moisturizing gel, 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, consuming foods that are rich and high in calories may help.
Follow your internal clock
You may find that your appetite is better at certain times of day. Many cancer patients report that their appetite is best in the morning. So if you feel like having a bigger, richer meal then, 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 try eating 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 could be your go-to 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 will 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.