During Cancer Treatment

Cancer treatments require good eating habits to provide adequate energy, protein, and micronutrients to promote your body’s ability to repair. Well-nourished patients generally have fewer side effects, better wound healing, fewer infections, and more energy for activities of daily living. 

General suggestions for eating well during cancer treatment:

  • Drink enough clear fluids to avoid dehydration. Most adults require 8 to 12 cups of liquid every day during cancer treatments.  Your fluid needs will increase if you have certain side effects, such as vomiting and diarrhea.
  • Eat enough energy from a wide variety of wholesome foods in more frequent, but smaller, meals and snacks.  Energy (calorie) needs vary a great deal from person to person. In general, if your weight is stable, it is safe to assume that you are meeting your energy needs. If you are losing more than a few pounds during treatment, you are not supplying your body with enough energy. By spreading out your energy intake and avoiding low blood sugar, you should have fewer digestive symptoms and better maintain your muscle mass.
  • Eat enough high protein foods. Like calories, protein needs are individual.  Protein needs increase during times of tissue repair and rebuilding, such as during cancer treatments. For the body to effectively use protein, adequate energy must also be provided. Spread your high protein foods out throughout the day as part of your smaller, more frequent meals and snacks.

Suggestions for eating well and enough with the side effects of cancer treatments:

  • Unintended weight changes. All cancer treatments can result in either unintended weight loss or gain.  But more importantly, poor appetite and changes in your activity level can result in lost muscle mass. Note your weight on the first day of treatment and do your best to avoid weight changes by adapting your food and fluid intake with the suggestions below.
  • Taste Changes. Medications, radiation and chemotherapy can all affect how foods taste. Although taste changes and loss of taste are usually temporary, they can decrease your appetite and lead to weight loss and malnutrition.  Take a “food is medicine” approach and don’t let taste changes and poor eating cause weight and/or muscle mass loss. A good oral care routine can make a difference.  A simple before eating “rinse and spit” of 1 quart water, ¾ tsp. salt, 1 tsp. baking soda will help neutralize your taste buds before eating.  Use a non-alcohol based mouth rinse after eating.
  • Constipation. Some medications, particularly opioid pain medicines and nausea medications used during treatment can cause constipation. Drink plenty of liquids every day. Fluid recommendations are listed above. Speak to your oncology dietitian for ways to increase fiber rich foods and physical activity which can also help relieve constipation.
  • Diarrhea. Eliminate greasy, high-fat, spicy and fried foods.  Choose lactose-free dairy products to see if symptoms improve. Add foods higher in water absorbing fibers, such as applesauce, bananas, white rice, and baked potatoes without skin. Fluid and electrolyte (sodium and potassium) losses can be replaced with homemade or commercial oral replacement drinks, such as Pedialyte®. 
  • Sore Throat / Mouth. Radiation and some types of chemotherapy can cause a sore mouth and/or throat. To maintain a steady weight, keep eating and choose soft, moist, non-acidic foods and swallow liquids with each bite. With treatments causing severe painful swallowing, such as chemoradiation, you will be referred to an Oncology Dietitian for an individualized nutrition plan and frequent follow-up
  • Nausea / Vomiting. Eat smaller, more frequent meals and snacks. Choose easy to digest, starchy foods, such as crackers, rice, potatoes or pretzels. Avoid strong food odors. Separate liquids from solid food, but be sure to drink adequate fluids to prevent dehydration. Be consistent with prescribed anti-nausea medications.
  • Heartburn / Reflux.  Avoid peppermint, spearmint, chocolate, alcohol, caffeinated beverages, hot spices and high fat foods. Also avoid eating too close to bedtime.

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