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The Importance of Hydration


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Dehydration occurs when a person does not take in enough fluid or loses too much fluid. Without enough water, the human body cannot function properly. In particular, people undergoing cancer treatment may be at a higher risk for dehydration due to treatment side effects, such as diarrhea and vomiting. Learning how to stay hydrated, recognizing dehydration, and treating it before it becomes severe are important steps for good health.

Dehydration Symptoms
Dehydration is cumulative, meaning the longer you go without enough fluids, the more dehydrated you will become. While thirst is one way your body alerts you to drink more, other symptoms of dehydration include dry or sticky mouth or a swollen tongue, fatigue or weakness, irritability, dizziness or light-headedness, nausea, headaches, constipation, dry skin, weight loss, and dark yellow urine or a decrease in urination.

Severe dehydration, which can be life threatening and needs immediate medical treatment, can cause extreme thirst, fever, rapid heartbeat, lack of urination for more than eight hours, sunken eyes, inability to sweat, inability to produce tears, low blood pressure, and disorientation or confusion.

Staying Hydrated
The amount of fluid a person should consume each day to stay hydrated can differ based on his or her health and lifestyle. Talk with your doctor about how much water you should be drinking. The following tips can help you keep your body's fluid balance in check.

People undergoing cancer treatment may be at a higher risk for dehydration due to treatment side effects.

Drink lots of fluids. Drinking at least eight cups of water each day is a good rule of thumb, according to the American Dietetic Association. However, if you have any risk factors for dehydration, you should drink more. If you dislike plain water, try drinking a flavored water or adding a slice of lemon. Other fluids such as juice and tea can contribute to your fluid count as well.

Eat foods with high water content. While drinking water is the best source of hydration, many foods contain water and can help replenish lost fluids. Choose foods like lettuce (95 percent water), watermelon (92 percent water), and broccoli (91 percent water). Soups, popsicles, and yogurt also have high water content.

Get help managing side effects. If you are undergoing a treatment, such as chemotherapy, that is causing nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea, talk with your doctor about ways to prevent or minimize these side effects, such as medication.

Don't wait to drink. Make a conscious effort to drink enough on a regular basis, and more often when you begin feeling ill, before you exercise, or before you go out into hot weather. Ensuring that you are well hydrated before you lose water can help reduce your risk for dehydration.

Avoid foods and drinks that may contribute to dehydration. Beverages with sugar and/or caffeine (such as fruit juice, soda, and coffee) may help to hydrate some, but are not as effective as low-sugar or low/non-caffeine beverage varieties.

Treating Dehydration
If you are experiencing side effects from a treatment or illness and find it hard to take in and keep down water and food, it can be difficult to replace the water your body has lost. Try these tips to address mild dehydration:

  • Suck on ice chips or popsicles if you are having trouble drinking water or eating.
  • Apply moisturizer to cracked lips and medication to mouth sores so that drinking and eating is less painful.
  • If you are able to drink, take in small amounts frequently instead of a large amount at one time; too much fluid at once may cause vomiting.
  • Keep a water bottle with you at all times and sip throughout the waking hours.
  • Drink a large glass of water before bed and upon rising each morning.
  • If you have diarrhea, be sure to select beverages that have sodium and potassium to help replace these losses in stool.
  • If you have fatigue, keep ice and drinks within reach so you don't have to get up more often than necessary.

If your symptoms become severe, visit your doctor immediately. In some cases, intravenous (IV) fluids or hospitalization may be necessary. Your doctor may also perform tests to determine the extent of dehydration and to figure out what is causing your fluid loss.

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Source: Reprinted with permission. © 2009 American Society of Clinical Oncology. All rights reserved.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2008.