Chemotherapy and Diet

By Suzanne Dixon
Chemotherapy and Diet

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

Constipation

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. Include high-fiber foods in meals and snacks every day. High-fiber foods include whole-grain and bran cereals, whole-grain breads, oatmeal, brown rice, fruits, vegetables, beans, peas and lentils, as well as nuts and seeds.

Drink plenty of water and, don't forget, other beverages count, too. Aim for 8 cups of total fluids per day. Always check with your registered dietitian nutritionist, doctor or nurse before taking a fiber supplement.

Nausea

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 five to six meals a day. Avoid having your stomach become completely empty.
  • Go natural. Natural ginger soda, ginger tea and ginger candies may combat nausea.
  • Consider eating cool, light foods. Avoid greasy, high-fat foods.
  • Drink liquids between, rather than with, meals.
  • Avoid food odors, staying out of the kitchen during food preparation if you can.

Diarrhea

You may need medication to control severe diarrhea, but food also can play a role.

  • Eat small frequent meals.
  • Try nibbling salty foods, including crackers and pretzels, to replace lost sodium.
  • Keep non-caffeinated fluids handy, and sip slowly and consistently through the day.
  • Sip non-acidic juices such as apricot, peach or pear nectars.
  • Again, drink fluids between, rather than with, meals.

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, thin oatmeal, yogurt, eggs, 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.

Always Talk

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 (CSO). If a CSO is not available, a non-CSO registered dietitian is also a great option.

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