Nutrition and Cancer Treatment

When you are undergoing cancer treatment it is important that you maintain optimal nutrition to keep you strong, help your treatment be more effective and prevent an interruption in treatment. Your body needs more fuel than normal because it needs to repair quickly from the effects of cancer treatments. If you are unable to eat the calories you need your body will draw upon the stored fat and protein. When your body uses stored protein, malnutrition can be an issue and your immune system may not function as it should.

At any point during your treatment you can request a visit with the dietitian; this is a healthcare professional with extensive training in nutrition. Your dietitian can help you develop a plan to nourish your body during treatment and recovery. Getting adequate protein, calories and high-nutrient foods are very important during this time. This supply of nutrients includes calories from all macronutrients, including carbohydrates, protein and fat. Dietitians can help by making recommendations for how to keep you nourished with healthy foods and a well-balanced diet.

Maintaining optimal nutrition during treatment can provide several benefits including:

  • Support your immune system
  • Preserving lean body cell mass
  • Rebuilding body tissue
  • Decreasing your risk of infection
  • Improving your strength and increasing energy
  • Improve your tolerance to treatment
  • Help you recuperate faster after treatment
  • Improve your quality of life


Radiation Therapy Side Effects

Radiation therapy is very targeted so that as much healthy tissue as possible is spared. There are areas of the body that will produce side effects when treated and may interfere with eating and nutrition. Some people have few or no side effects from radiation treatment, however, some side effects can last for a period of time after treatment has been completed.

Side effects of radiation therapy treatment may include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Painful swallowing
  • Sore throat
  • Loss of appetite
  • Heartburn
  • Diarrhea
  • Change in how foods taste


Chemotherapy Side Effects

Chemotherapy is used to treat many different kinds of cancer, it kills cancer cells that divide rapidly but it also destroys healthy cells that divide rapidly such as those in your mouth and digestive tract. This can cause side effects depending on the drug and the schedule of your treatment. You may not have any side effects or you may develop some as treatment goes on.

Side effects of chemotherapy treatment may include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea,
  • Changes in how things smell and taste
  • Sore mouth or throat
  • Dry mouth

Nutrition Tips for Coping with Nausea

  • Eat small meals throughout the day and eat slowly
  • Eat foods at room temperature or cooler; drink beverages that are cool or chilled
  • When you wake up snack on dry foods such as saltine crackers or toast, when you wake up
  • Avoid greasy, sweet or spicy foods, or foods that have a strong odor
  • Sit upright when eating and rest upright for at least one hour after meals
  • Avoid dehydration by sipping on clear liquids (e.g., water, broth, juice, popsicles) frequently
  • Avoid eating in a room that is too warm, or that has cooking odors
  • Rinse your mouth with baking soda and salt before and after meals (1 quart water, ¾ teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon baking soda)
  • Suck on hard candy such as peppermint or lemon, if there is a bad taste in your mouth
  • Avoid drinking a lot of liquids during mealtime – it may make you feel full and bloated
  • Avoid eating for one or two hours before your treatment
  • Try bland, soft foods on scheduled treatment days (e.g., cream of wheat, chicken noodle soup)
  • Avoid stuffy environments and restrictive clothing
  • Try natural supplements, such as ginger capsules (ginger root beer) and peppermint extract
  • Ask your doctor about medications to ease nausea


Nutrition Tips for Coping with Constipation

  • Eat high-fiber foods and drink plenty of fluids throughout the day
  • Drink 8-10 cups of clear liquid a day (e.g., water, prune juice, warm juices, non-caffeinated teas, soup, popsicles)
  • Eat a breakfast that includes a hot drink and foods high in insoluble fiber (e.g., bran cereals)
  • Try drinking a warm liquid such as soup or tea 30 minutes before your normal time for a bowel movement
  • Try drinking ½ cup of warm prune juice
  • Slowly add high-fiber foods to your diet (e.g., whole-grain breads and cereals, fruits and vegetables with skins/peels, beans, peas, raisins, dates and prunes). Increase fluid when increasing fiber.
  • Try eating meals at the same times each day to help regulate your bowel movements
  • If gas becomes a problem, limit drinks and foods that cause gas (e.g., carbonated beverages, cruciferous vegetables and chewing gum). Avoid drinking with a straw
  • If you feel up to it, and if your doctor permits, try to increase your physical activity
  • If using an enteral formula, as in the case of a feeding tube, consider switching to a formula with fiber
  • Ask your doctor about medications to relieve constipation (e.g., some over-the-counter medicines include Senekot, Colace, Metamucil, Benefiber)

Nutrition Tips for Coping with Fatigue

  • Talk to your doctor about incorporating light to moderate exercise into your daily routine, such as a short walk
  • Plan your day to include plenty of rest and make sure you take naps or breaks throughout the day
  • Prioritize activities that are most important to you, don’t push yourself! Try and do shorter versions of your usual activities
  • Be sure to meet your basic calorie needs and drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration
  • Avoid eating foods high in sugar – you will get a quick boost, but be even more tired afterward
  • Try eating snacks high in protein (e.g., nuts, cottage cheese, lean poultry, tuna, salmon, peanut butter, protein shakes)
  • Check with your dietitian or naturopathic practitioner about vitamin and mineral supplements
  • Try using relaxation techniques to combat stress (e.g., deep breathing, meditation, visualization, music therapy, massage)
  • Avoid long, hot showers or baths
  • Nutrition Tips for Coping with Diarrhea
  • Drink lots of water during the day and try diluted fruit juices and broths. Drink warm or room-temperature liquids, never chilled
  • Don’t drink liquids during meals, wait for 30 minutes after eating
  • Eat foods containing potassium (e.g., bananas, potatoes, diluted fruit juices, cooked vegetables)
  • Eat foods containing sodium/salt such as broths, saltines and pretzels
  • Avoid drinking milk and eating foods that are made from milk until you feel better as these may make your symptoms worse
  • Avoid high fiber foods (e.g., whole grains, nuts, beans, raw vegetables, fruits with seeds/skins) until you feel better
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine
  • Try laying down 30 minutes after meals. Rest may slow down the digestive tract
  • Stop taking vitamin C temporarily
  • Water soluble fiber supplements such as pectin (e.g. Sure-jell) may help form a firmer stool. Try adding Sure-jell to hot cereals, soups, or a banana smoothie with rice milk