The side effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatment can cause a number of eating challenges that can prevent patients from getting the nutrition they need to fight infection and aid their recovery. In addition to nausea and lack of appetite, complications include sores or pain in the mouth and throat, dry mouth and changes in the taste buds that make many foods unappealing.
Most cancer treatment centers now offer nutritional counseling to help patients cope with side effects and maintain a healthy diet while undergoing chemo or radiation. Certain types of cancer (esophageal, intestinal, etc.) have very specific guidelines for nutrition. In cases where eating is impossible, nutritional therapy may help, in the form of nutritional supplement drinks, alternative feeding methods (by tube or bloodstream) and/or 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 there are specific concerns that need to be addressed.
Lack of Appetite
It’s common to feel little or no desire to eat, but eating is essential to your health. Commit 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 is strongest in the morning, make the most of it with a large breakfast.
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. Consider trying a mouth-moisturizing rinse or gel.
- Keep your lips moisturized as well.
- 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, brushing your teeth and rinsing your mouth throughout the day can help.
- Keep water with you and sip often.
- Eat soft, tender foods that have been cooked well (e.g., soft fruits, cottage cheese, yogurt, eggs, soup, mashed potatoes, oatmeal, pudding) — they’ll be easier to chew and swallow.
- 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 that nothing tastes the same after treatment. These tips may help you cope.
- Rinse out your mouth with water before each meal.
- If you’re experiencing a metallic taste in your mouth, try using plastic utensils.
- Citrus fruits can be refreshing — unless you have mouth sores that make them prohibitive.
- Mints or gum can help keep your mouth feeling fresh.
- Increasing the amount of sugar in certain foods can make them more palatable. (Note: If you are suffering from thrush, 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.
- Don’t lie down within an hour after eating, to help minimize reflux.