Cancer and treating it can take a toll on your body and make it difficult to consume all of the nutrients you need to fight cancer and recover. Many cancer treatments kill healthy cells as well as cancer cells. As a result, your body needs more nutrients to replenish the healthy cells that support you before, during or after treatment.
Treating cancer and its side effects can impact your ability and desire to eat, along with affect how food tastes or smells. Feeling nauseated, tired, depressed or just uncomfortable may also affect your eating habits. Your doctor may recommend nutrition therapy. This often begins with nutritional counseling, also referred to as dietary counseling, in which dietitians or professionals with special training in nutrition help you make healthy food choices and form smart eating habits. The goal of nutritional counseling is to help patients be healthy during and after treatment and to stay strong enough to prevent or manage infections and lower the risk of recurrence.
Learn about the unique nutrition challenges ahead and the options you have to get the nutrients your body needs. Meet with a registered dietitian before treatment begins. The dietitian will perform a nutritional assessment and recommend therapy to assist you through treatment to avoid weight and muscle loss, dehydration and malnutrition. A key goal will be to focus on preventing your treatment from being interrupted due to malnutrition. A dietitian will be a valuable resource for you throughout treatment and beyond. If your health care team does not have a dietitian on staff, ask for a referral.
Managing Appetite Loss
A major challenge you may face during treatment is loss of appetite. This side effect is common; however, when you can’t eat or don’t want to eat, you may be at risk for losing weight. Nausea may cause appetite loss. Ginger tea and chews can help reduce nausea. Also, ask your doctor for anti-nausea medication.
Because a healthy diet can help you gain strength, it helps to know what to do — and what not to do.
In general, try to consume a wide variety of healthy foods and drink plenty of liquids. Following are options to help get the most nutrition out of every bite:
- Eat protein-rich foods: chicken, fish, turkey, eggs, low-fat dairy products, nuts and soy.
- Drink high-protein or high-calorie beverages: milkshakes, smoothies and nutritional supplement beverages.
- Include colorful fruits and vegetables: apples and leafy greens. Check whether they need to be cooked before eating.
- Choose whole grains: oatmeal, whole wheat bread, brown rice and whole grain pasta.
- Switch to healthy fats: avocados, nuts, seeds and olive oil.
- Eat five to six small meals throughout the day.
- Avoid saturated and trans fats, added sugars, cakes, cookies, candies, salts, alcohol and undercooked fish or shellfish.
- Schedule your “main” meal of the day for when your appetite is best and you are able to eat the most.
- Talk with your health care team before taking vitamins or supplements as doctors prefer that you get all, or most, of your nutrients from food.
- Ask whether you would benefit from taking branched-chain amino acids.
It may be challenging to prepare meals when you have lost your appetite, feel nauseated or are tired. Conserve your energy by having foods on hand that are ready to eat or require little preparation, such as puddings, peanut butter, tuna, protein bars, trail mix, cheese and crackers, eggs and frozen meals.
Cancer, treatment and side effects may cause malnutrition, a condition that develops as a result of not getting enough calories and nutrients, or not being able to absorb the right amount of key nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals.
Malnutrition is surprisingly common and should be addressed to accommodate the metabolic demand, immunosuppression and increased inflammation that treatments and underlying conditions can have on the body. It is also a concern during bridging therapy while awaiting a transplant.
Symptoms may include feeling tired and weak, and may be severe enough to prevent you from completing treatment. If you are unable to eat or do not want to eat, you may experience weight and muscle loss. If eating is difficult for these or other reasons, alternative options such as parenteral nutrition exist.
Parenteral nutrition may be an option in rare cases if your digestive tract is not working, or when a blockage is present. In this type of feeding, the nutrients you need are delivered intravenously (through a vein), usually through a port that is surgically inserted.
Your body needs water to function and to prevent dehydration. Daily fluid needs vary based on health, weight, activity level and geographic area. The general recommendation is 10 cups of water per day for men and 8 cups for women. Ask your doctor about your recommended water intake.
Try to consume more fluids, including water, if you experience side effects such as diarrhea or vomiting, as they may cause you to lose additional fluid and increase your risk for dehydration. If diarrhea is severe, you may not be able to absorb plain water, and your doctor may recommend a specialized oral rehydration solution. Certain drinks can also help replenish lost electrolytes.