By Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD
Chemotherapy is a mainstay of cancer treatment, and, fortunately, there are many options for managing the symptoms and side effects that can accompany cancer treatment. Through a combination of the right medical management and the best that nutrition has to offer, you can give your body the fuel it needs to heal and recover.
Symptom by Symptom
If your medical team recommends laxative medication, follow this advice. Constipation is easier to prevent than to treat after it occurs. Additionally, food can be your ally. Both soluble and insoluble fiber help the digestive tract stay on track.
|Soluble Fiber Foods
||Insoluble Fiber Foods
||whole wheat/wheat bran
|applesauce (no sugar added)
||nuts and seeds
||rye and quinoa
|pears (peeled) and bananas
Drink plenty of water and, if recommended, use a fiber supplement. Always ask your dietitian, doctor or nurse if a fiber supplement is a good option. These products are safe for most people; however, some digestive problems worsen with fiber.
If you have vomiting, this is a medical issue and must be addressed with medication. However, if you have queasiness with little or no vomiting, eating the right foods at the right times can help.
- Eat often. Nibble to avoid having your stomach become completely empty.
- Go natural. Natural ginger soda, ginger tea and ginger candies can combat nausea.
- Be bland. Try bland, salty foods, such as scrambled eggs, toast, oatmeal, chicken noodle soup, saltine crackers, pretzels or lightly seasoned rice or pasta.
- Avoid food odors. Drink liquids from a cup with a lid and straw, and stay out of the kitchen during food preparation if you can.
You may need medication to control severe diarrhea, but food can play a role too. Eat foods high in soluble fiber and avoid insoluble fiber. Try bananas, white rice, peeled pears, applesauce, sticky white rice, oatmeal and white toast.
- Nibbling salty foods, including crackers and pretzels, to replace lost sodium.
- Keeping non-caffeinated fluids handy, and sipping slowly and consistently through the day.
- Sipping non-acidic juices such as apricot, peach or pear nectars.
- Drinking fluids between, rather than with, meals.
- Lying down after eating.
Sore or Dry Mouth and Throat
Some chemotherapy medications can cause a sore or dry mouth and throat. If your medical team prescribes medications for this, use these products as instructed and follow mouth care instructions exactly.
A few nutrition tricks can lessen mouth irritation, for example:
- Try soft and liquid foods, such as smoothies, warm soup, thinned oatmeal, yogurt, pudding, mashed potatoes and canned fruit.
- Soften food with milk, broth, sauces or gravy.
- Sip warm, caffeine-free tea.
- Try frozen grapes, cantaloupe wedges, peach slices or watermelon.
- Avoid irritating or acidic items, including citrus, crunchy or dry foods, hot coffee, alcohol and foods with small seeds.
Lack of Appetite
Lack of appetite can prevent people from getting the nutrition they need during cancer care. If you just don’t feel like eating, try the following:
- Eat five or six small meals each day, instead of two or three.
- Keep snacks handy; hunger may last just a few minutes. Try granola bars, fruit, nuts, yogurt, pudding, pretzels, hard-boiled eggs and canned fruit.
- Eat your favorite foods any time of the day.
- Drink fat-free or low-fat milk, fruit juice or smoothies. Avoid filling up on fluids with no calories, such as water, coffee or tea.
Weight Gain/Increased Appetite
Some people gain excess pounds because they eat due to stress or anxiety. Receiving a cancer diagnosis is stressful. When snacking, reach for the healthiest options you can, such as fruit, yogurt or vegetables with hummus dip.
If you find yourself turning to food for comfort, ask your nurse about options for managing anxiety and stress. Most cancer centers offer free or low-cost counseling, support groups, art therapy, massages and a variety of other coping tools.
Fatigue and busy treatment schedules can limit activity. Work with your family and friends to carve out a little active “me” time. Light to moderate exercise, such as walking, is the best prescription for fatigue, and it can keep the scale in neutral territory.
Through close communication with your medical team, and a combination of medical and nutritional management, you can keep most chemotherapy symptoms under control. Best of all, you can help your body get the nutrients needed for healing and recovery.
If you, or a loved one, have received a cancer diagnosis, ask your medical team for a referral to a registered dietitian nutritionist who is a certified specialist in oncology nutrition, or CSO. If a CSO is not available, a non-CSO registered dietitian is also a great option.
Reviewed November 2013
Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian nutritionist and epidemiologist with a consulting business in Portland, Oregon. She is an internationally recognized expert in chronic disease prevention, epidemiology and nutrition, lectures frequently, and has developed and taught medical, nursing, public health and alternative medicine coursework.