Chemotherapy is a mainstay of cancer treatment that may come with some side effects. Fortunately, there are many options for managing the symptoms and side effects that can accompany it. 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 is easier to prevent than to treat after it occurs. Gradually increase your intake of foods that are higher in dietary fiber by including them in meals and snacks. Sources include whole-grain and bran cereals, whole-grain breads, oatmeal, fresh 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 at least 8 cups of fluids per day. Always check with your registered dietitian nutritionist, doctor or nurse before starting a new supplement to help with constipation. In some cases, a laxative medication may be recommended by your medical team.
If you have vomiting, this is a medical issue and will likely be addressed with medication. However, if you have queasiness with little or no vomiting, eating the right foods at the right times may help.
- Eat smaller, more frequent meals. Avoid having your stomach become completely empty.
- Natural ginger soda, ginger tea and ginger candies can help combat nausea.
- Consider eating foods that are served cool or at room temperature, as well as lighter foods. Avoid greasy, high-fat foods.
- Drink liquids between, rather than with, meals.
- Avoid foods with strong odors. Stay out of the kitchen during food preparation if you can.
You may need medication to control severe diarrhea, but food also can play a role.
- Choose foods that are easier to digest and ones that are lower in fat and fiber. Examples include protein foods like cooked poultry, fish, and eggs. Refined grains, cooked vegetables and canned fruits (in their own juice) may also be easier to tolerate.
- Keep non-caffeinated fluids handy, and sip slowly and consistently through the day. Limit beverages and foods with sugar alcohols.
- Try nibbling salty foods, such as crackers and pretzels, to replace lost sodium.
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 water throughout the day.
- Try frozen fruit, like 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 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.
- Discuss your fiber intake with an RDN, since higher fiber foods can promote fullness.
- Drink fat-free or low-fat milk, 100% fruit juice or smoothies. Avoid filling up on fluids with no calories, such as coffee or tea.
Weight Gain/Increased Appetite
Some people gain excess weight because they eat for emotional reasons. Receiving a cancer diagnosis is stressful. When snacking, reach for nutrient-dense options, such as fruit, yogurt or vegetables with hummus dip.
If you find yourself turning to food for comfort, ask your health care provider 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 and resources.
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 physical activity, such as walking, is a great prescription for fatigue, and it can help to keep the scale in neutral territory.
Always Talk to Your Health Care Team
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. Many RDNs who work with cancer patients are trained in oncology nutrition or may have the credential of a board certified specialist in oncology nutrition, also known as a CSO.
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