Eating Well When You Have Cancer

If you have cancer, your diet is an important part of your treatment. Eating the right kinds of foods can help you feel better and stay stronger, but side effects of cancer treatment can make it difficult to eat.

Cancer treatments kill cancer cells, but in the process of killing cancer cells, some healthy cells also are damaged, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) says. Damage to healthy cells is what causes side effects to cancer treatments.

The following side effects can interfere with your ability to eat:

  • Loss of appetite

  • Losing or gaining weight

  • Sore mouth or throat

  • Dry mouth

  • Dental and gum problems

  • Change in sense of taste or smell

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Diarrhea

  • Lactose intolerance

  • Constipation

  • Fatigue or depression

Although the diet for someone undergoing cancer treatment will depend on where the cancer is and the type of treatment being received, cancer patients often need a higher-calorie diet than normal that emphasizes protein. Protein and calories are important for healing, fighting infection, and providing energy, the NCI says.

A registered dietitian can help you plan meals and find foods that might help with potential side effects, such as nausea, the NCI says.

Talk with your doctor about medications that can reduce nausea and increase appetite during treatment. Other medications can help with bowel regularity.

During treatment

There aren't any absolute nutrition rules regarding eating during cancer treatment. Some patients are able to continue to enjoy eating and have a normal appetite throughout most of their treatment, the NCI says. Others may have days when they don't feel like eating at all.

A person who is well nourished and getting enough calories and protein may have better results from treatment, the NCI says. Higher doses of certain treatments may be possible if the person is well nourished.

Here are some tips from the NCI to keep in mind:

  • Try to eat meals and snacks with lots of protein and calories. They will help you keep up your strength, prevent body tissues from breaking down, and rebuild tissues that cancer treatment may harm.

  • Many people find their appetites are better in the morning. If this is true for you, consider eating your main meal of the day when you wake up, and have liquid meal replacements later on if you don't feel as interested in eating.

  • On those days when you just can't eat, don't worry about it. Do what you can to make yourself feel better. Start eating again as soon as possible, but tell your doctor if this problem persists for more than a few days.

  • Eat five or six meals each day instead of three big meals.

  • Try to drink plenty of fluids, especially on those days when you don't feel like eating. Water is essential to your body's proper functioning, so getting enough fluids will ensure your body has the water it needs.

Loss of appetite

Loss of appetite is one of the most common problems that occur with cancer and its treatment.

These suggestions might help:

  • Keep snacks within easy reach so you can eat something whenever you feel like it. Cheese and crackers, muffins, peanut butter, and fruit are good choices. When you go out, take a portable snack, such as peanut butter crackers or small boxes of raisins.

  • Try soft, cool, or frozen foods, such as yogurt, milk shakes or popsicles.

  • During meals, sip only small amounts of water because drinking may make you feel full. If you want to drink more, do so 30 to 60 minutes before or after a meal.

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