Healthy eating habits are essential during treatment

After learning you have cancer, the last thing on your mind is probably food, but it’s important to understand the vital role nutrition and a healthy lifestyle play at this time in your life, both physically and emotionally.

Learning and keeping good nutrition habits may help you prevent weight loss, maintain your strength and energy, tolerate the side effects of treatment better, reduce your risk of infections and recover faster.

A healthy diet also contributes to your emotional health, improving your mood and helping you stay positive for what’s ahead. Choosing smart lifestyle habits, such as not smoking and stopping or limiting alcohol consumption, is extremely helpful in preparing your body for managing treatment. And making decisions about the foods you eat and how you live your life can be empowering, offering some control at a time when you may not feel like you have much.

With the help of your health care team, you can make a plan that will better position you to address the nutrition-related challenges that accompany a cancer diagnosis. Ideally, soon after diagnosis, you will be connected with a registered dietitian or nutritionist. Ask your doctor for a nutrition consultation or referral.

Getting Started

A dietitian can work with you to create a personalized plan to maintain healthy habits during treatment.

In general, a well-balanced diet includes eating and drinking enough of the foods and liquids that have important nutrients (vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates, fat and water) the body needs. You must also drink enough fluids to function and to prevent dehydration. The general recommendation is 10 cups of water per day for men and 8 cups for women.

Even if you feel you have good eating habits, your treatment plan may make it difficult to get the nutrition you need. Cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy kill healthy cells as well as cancer cells, which can make you feel weak or tired. Common side effects include mouth sores, appetite loss, fatigue, nausea and more. These side effects can make it difficult to get the nutrients your body needs to replenish the healthy cells. Surgery may cause physical changes that affect your ability to eat.

Not everyone experiences side effects that prevent you from eating or getting adequate nutrition, and those that do may have only mild symptoms that are easily managed with medication or dietary changes. Talking to your dietitian about your fears and worries before treatment begins can help reduce any anxiety you may be feeling. Come prepared with questions, such as these:

  • Are there certain foods to avoid during treatment?
  • What suggestions do you have for curbing nausea?
  • Can I add supplements to my diet if I feel like I’m not getting enough nutrients?
  • How can I maintain a healthy weight during treatment?

To get started, your dietitian will help identify any nutritional deficiencies, talk with you about your diagnosis and personal preferences, and set nutritional goals. You will likely receive easy, practical tips you can use on a daily basis. It is helpful if the person who will be responsible for buying groceries and making the meals is with you to hear this valuable information.

During treatment, your dietitian will adjust your goals to address your changing nutritional needs, including weight loss or gain, appetite challenges, nausea and more. You will be closely monitored for signs of malnutrition so that you don’t lose lean body mass and develop other complications.

Dietary supplements may be recommended as an additional nutrition source or if you are unable to gain enough nutrients through your regular diet. They offer extra calories, protein or vitamins, and some are designed to help manage oral side effects that often accompany certain types of treatment.

Sometimes you may need the additional help of enteral (EN-teh-rul) nutrition, also called tube feeding. This may be your single source of nutrients, or it may be used to add them until you can eat enough by mouth. Tube feeding may be a temporary or permanent solution.