by Holly Clegg
Anyone who’s been diagnosed with cancer knows that cancer and the side effects of treatment can affect the body in many different ways. People undergoing cancer treatment may experience loss of appetite, taste and smell changes, sore throat, diarrhea, constipation, and a lack of energy. All these changes can make maintaining adequate calories and nutrition difficult.
However, it’s important for cancer survivors to make sure that good nutrition doesn’t fall by the wayside during treatment. A healthy diet can help you keep up your strength and boost your immune system. What you eat may also make a difference in how well you handle treatment.
When going through treatment, your diet is in constant flux, changing with taste, intolerance of certain foods, and caloric needs. However, despite these challenges, it is possible to eat well and stay properly nourished during cancer treatment.
What to Eat during Chemo
On the morning of your scheduled chemotherapy treatment, try eating a low-fat, light meal. For example, cereal, toast, oatmeal, grits, or fruit salad. In the 24 hours following treatment, you may want to stick to liquids, soups, puddings, and sandwiches. Try to avoid high-fat, fried, or greasy foods for the first 24 to 48 hours following treatment. Instead, opt for easier-to-tolerate foods and lighter recipes to help boost your immune system and give you strength and energy. Supplemental nutritional drinks, like Boost, are also good choices if you don’t feel like eating solid foods.
If you find that only two foods appeal to you, then there is nothing wrong with eating those two foods until you feel ready to expand your diet. If breakfast food is what appeals to you, then go ahead and have it for dinner also.
The Importance of Snacking
Snacks are strongly encouraged during cancer treatment, as it is sometimes easier to eat several small meals or snacks throughout the day rather than three large meals. Eating high-calorie, low-volume snacks can help you maintain your weight when your appetite just isn’t there. Keep cheese, dips, fruit, nuts, popcorn, and crackers on hand for quick snacks. Smoothies also make good snacks, especially for people with mouth sores or those for whom strong smells are off-putting. Not to mention, smoothies are a good way to sneak extra fruit and veggies into your diet.
Some survivors experience sore mouth symptoms about seven to ten days after certain chemotherapy treatments. A common remedy for preventing ulcers and alleviating mouth soreness is to rinse your mouth after each meal with a solution of one teaspoon of baking soda, combined with a teaspoon of salt, and mixed in a quart of water. You can make a fresh solution each morning and discard any left over at the end of the day.
If you have mouth sores, try eating soft or puréed foods, such as puddings, creamed soups, cooked cereals, mashed potatoes, and soft pastas. Cut food into smaller pieces, and try drinking liquids and puréed foods through a straw. This is also a good time to use plastic utensils, as metal flatware can leave a metallic taste in your mouth.
Many people find that chilled foods or foods served at room temperature are easier to handle when you have sore mouth symptoms. Conversely, raw foods tend to irritate a sore mouth and should be avoided. It’s also best to avoid acidic foods and salty foods, including citrus fruits, tomatoes, crackers, and alcohol, as these may further irritate the mouth.
Nausea and Vomiting
If you’re experiencing chemo-induced nausea and vomiting, make sure to drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. Sip water, or other clear liquids, throughout the day. Many people find that clear, cool liquids go down easier than drinks that are hot or icy. Once vomiting has stopped, ease into eating easy-to-digest foods such as clear liquids, plain crackers, gelatin, and plain toast.
Diarrhea can follow certain chemotherapy or radiation treatments. When diarrhea occurs, the first thing you should do is stop all intake of stool softeners, laxatives, and high-fiber foods (such as nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes, dried fruit, and raw fruits and vegetables). Then, fast for two to four hours before starting clear liquids. Following your initial fast, be sure to sip fluids throughout the day to replace those lost by diarrhea and to prevent dehydration. Water, clear soup, broth, flat soda, and sports drinks are all good options. Once the diarrhea begins to subside a bit, and you feel ready to begin eating again, start by introducing bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast, also known as the BRAT diet.
Many people experience constipation throughout cancer treatment. A diet that is rich in fiber can help alleviate constipation. Try to make sure that every meal you eat contains at least three grams of fiber. You can do this by tossing veggies into soups, sauces, and casseroles, or by snacking on foods containing whole grains, such as oatmeal, popcorn, barley, and cereals.
Pile on the Protein
When going through cancer treatment, it’s important to avoid losing too much weight. Research has shown that cancer survivors who maintain their weight and eat a healthy diet have fewer complications from chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery – with shorter hospital stays, reduced illness, and fewer infections. They also tend to better preserve their strength and have an improved sense of well-being.
Adding protein to your diet can help you maintain a healthy weight, give your body fuel to build and repair tissues, and protect your immune system. Without enough protein, your body may take longer to recover from illness, and you may have a lower resistance to infection. Following surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy, most cancer survivors need additional protein to help the body heal damaged tissue and to help prevent infection. Good sources of protein include legumes, eggs, nuts and seeds, peanut butter, cheese, beef, and chicken breasts. You can also add a little nonfat instant dry milk to scrambled eggs, soup, cereal, and sauces to infuse some extra protein into your diet.
Don’t Forget to Hydrate
Hydration is essential during cancer treatment. Try keeping a glass of water with you at all times. I recommend drinking eight to ten glasses of water per day.
Holly Clegg is a cookbook author and coauthor (with oncologist Gerald Miletello, MD) of Eating Well Through Cancer: Easy Recipes & Tips to Guide You Through Treatment and Cancer Prevention, which has recently been re-released as a special revised and expanded 15th Anniversary edition. Visit HollyClegg.com to learn more.
You can find recipes and more tips from Holly at TheHealthyCookingBlog.com.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2016.
Editor’s Note: Holly Clegg passed away on November 1, 2019.