|Ellen Sweeney-Cordes MS, RD, LDN|
|The Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania|
| Last Modified: February 1, 2012
Benefits of Good Nutrition During Cancer Treatment
Good nutrition is especially important for people with cancer. That is because the illness itself, as well as its treatments, may affect your appetite. Cancer and cancer treatments may also alter your body's ability to tolerate certain foods and to use nutrients.
The nutrient needs of a cancer patient vary from person to person. Your doctors, nurses, and dietitians can help you identify your nutrition goals and plan strategies to help you meet them. Eating well while undergoing cancer therapy can help you to:
Eating well means eating a variety of foods that provide the nutrients you need to maintain your health while fighting cancer. These nutrients include protein, carbohydrates, fat, water, vitamins, and minerals.
Protein: Protein helps to ensure growth, to repair body tissue, and to maintain a healthy immune system. Without enough protein, the body takes longer to recover from illness and you will have a lower resistance to infection. As such, people with cancer often need more protein than usual. Following surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy, additional protein is usually needed to heal tissues and to help prevent infection. Good sources of protein include lean meat, fish, poultry, dairy products, nuts, dried beans, peas and lentils, and soy foods.
Carbohydrates and fats: Carbohydrates and fats supply the body with the bulk of the calories it needs. The amount of calories each person needs depends on his or her age, size, and level of physical activity. Sources of carbohydrates include fruits, vegetables, breads, pasta, grains and cereal products, dried beans, peas, and lentils. Sources of fat include butter, margarine, oils, nuts, seeds, dairy products, meats, fish, and poultry.
Vitamins and minerals: Vitamins and minerals help ensure proper growth and development. In addition, they allow the body to use the energy (calories) supplied in foods. A person who eats a balanced diet with enough calories and protein usually gets plenty of vitamins and minerals. However, eating a balanced diet can be challenging when you are receiving cancer treatment, particularly if treatment side effects persist for long periods of time. When that is the case, your doctor or dietitian may recommend a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement.
Water: Water and fluids are vital to health. If you do not take in enough fluids or if you are vomiting or have diarrhea, you may become dehydrated. Ask your medical team how much fluid you need each day to prevent dehydration.
You can use the American Cancer Society Guidelines for Nutrition for Cancer Prevention below to help you plan what to eat each day. The guidelines serve as a general guide for healthy people that lets you choose a healthful diet. People with cancer, however, may have increased nutritional needs. For example, your doctor or dietitian may suggest increasing the number of servings of specific types of food.
Changes in your eating habits and a loss of appetite may occur as a result of cancer and its treatment. If this happens to you, try eating small, frequent meals and snacks every one to two hours. Keep high-protein, high-calorie snacks and foods handy to eat when you are hungry. Avoid food smells caused by food preparation.
What to Do
When Things Don't Taste Right
Cancer and its treatments can cause changes in your senses of taste and smell. If you are having this problem, try foods or beverages that are different from ones you usually eat. Also, keep your mouth clean by rinsing and brushing, which in turn may improve the taste of foods.
What to Do
Constipation (bowel movement problems)
Pain medications, changes in your eating habits, and decreased physical activity can cause your bowels to move less frequently and stools to become more difficult to pass (constipation). If you have constipation, try eating high-fiber foods that can stimulate your bowels to move. Examples of high-fiber foods include whole grain breads and cereals, raw fruits and vegetables, dried fruits, seeds, beans, legumes, and nuts. In addition, drink plenty of fluids throughout the day, eat at regular times, and increase your level of physical activity .
What to Do
Sore or Irritated Mouth or Throat
Some people with cancer may have a sore mouth, mouth sores, or a sore throat. If you have these problems, eating soft, bland foods and lukewarm or cool foods can be soothing. On the other hand, foods that are coarse, dry, or scratchy should be avoided. In addition, you may find that tart, salty or acidic fruits and juices, alcohol, and spicy foods may be irritating and should be avoided. Rinsing your mouth regularly with one teaspoon of baking soda and eight ounces of water or salt water can help prevent infections and improve healing of a sore mouth and throat.
What to Do for a Sore or Irritated Mouth or Throat:
Cancer treatments and medications can cause your bowels to move much more frequently and stools to become very loose (diarrhea). If you have diarrhea, you may need to avoid high-fiber foods, which may make the problem worse. These include nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes, dried fruits, and raw fruits and vegetables. You should also avoid high-fat foods such as fried and greasy foods, as they can also promote diarrhea. In addition, stay away from gassy foods and carbonated beverages. Be sure to sip fluids throughout the day to prevent dehydration. Once the diarrhea has stopped, slowly begin eating foods containing fiber.
What to Do
When You Are Feeling Queasy
Some people with cancer may experience nausea and vomiting. If you have these problems, be sure to take in plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. Sip water, juices, and other clear, calorie-containing liquids throughout the day. You may tolerate clear, cool liquids better than very hot or icy fluids. When you have stopped vomiting, try eating easy-to-digest foods such as clear liquids, crackers, gelatin, and plain toast .
What to Do
Dry Mouth or Thick Saliva
Some cancer treatments and medications can cause dry mouth or thick saliva. If you have either of these side effects, drink plenty of fluids throughout the day and eat moist foods as much as possible. In addition, brush your teeth and rinse your mouth regularly with baking soda and water or salt water to help keep it clean and prevent infection. Avoid commercial mouthwashes and alcoholic and acidic beverages because they can dry and further irritate the mouth.
What to Do
Weight Gain or Weight Loss
People going through cancer treatment can experience weight loss during times of decreased appetite or other treatment related side effects that affect the ability to eat. It is important to eat whatever works during this time to maintain body weight and protein stores. You may benefit by the use of liquid nutritional products during this time like Ensure® , Boost®, etc.
Women that receive breast cancer treatment can also gain unwanted weight during and/or after the treatment process. The reason for this weight gain is not clear but may be due to hormonal changes as well as decreased activity, depression, and other factors. While this side effect is disconcerting to most, it is helpful to know about in advance. This way, you can adjust your eating habits accordingly if you begin gaining weight. Your dietitian can also assist you with modifying your diet to minimize weight gain.Many of the suggestions above are adapted from the American Cancer Society's web site information on coping with side effects during cancer treatment.