Eating Well While Receiving Chemotherapy
A diagnosis of cancer can be one of the worst things that can happen in your life. But chemotherapy, the very thing that is used to treat cancer, can be frightening too. Chemotherapy brings with it several side effects, one of the most common is difficulty eating. Here are some strategies to help you eat healthy while receiving chemotherapy.
How Chemotherapy Affects Eating
Chemotherapy acts by targeting and killing rapidly dividing cells, such as cancer cells. But, other cells in your body divide quickly as well, including the cells that line the gastrointestinal tract. Because of this, chemotherapy can have a profound impact on your ability to eat. Some chemotherapy side effects that affect your eating include:
Eating well, however, is crucial to your recovery. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), getting enough calories and nutrients while receiving chemotherapy can help you to:
Tips for Eating
At times, it may seem almost impossible to eat when you are receiving chemotherapy. The following suggestions may help you to get the much-needed nutrients and calories, while minimizing other side effects like nausea and vomiting.
“The best advice for patients receiving chemotherapy is to eat smaller, more frequent meals of easily tolerated foods,” says Claire Saxton, who worked as an oncology dietitian with the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, MA. “Fatty, greasy foods and spicy foods,” Saxton notes, “might not be well-tolerated, so I steer clients away from these choices.”
It is important to note that nutrition suggestions for a person receiving chemotherapy can be very different from what is recommended for daily healthy eating. Saxton explains, “Some patients need a reminder that this is a very different time for their bodies—they can and should throw some of the healthy eating rules out the window. I recommend not choosing reduced calorie, reduced fat, or light foods, but instead opting for the full-fat options when buying cheese, milk, and other foods.”
Dealing With Loss of Appetite
Most chemotherapy medicines cause some degree of appetite loss, which can range from mild to severe and can even lead to malnutrition. Usually, the change in appetite is temporary. Your appetite should return once you have completed chemotherapy. Until this happens, try some of the following tips:
Managing Nausea and Vomiting
Nausea and vomiting are very common side effects of chemotherapy. If you are experiencing either, talk with your doctor. There are several drugs that prevent or alleviate nausea and vomiting. These medicines can be used before your symptoms appear.
Some things you can do to help manage nausea and vomiting include:
In addition, social support is critical to your recovery. Take advantage of the kindness of others. Let your family and friends help you. Ask for assistance with grocery shopping, meal preparation, and clean up. If you have no one to help you, investigate resources in your area, like a community assistance center, support groups, local churches, social service centers, or senior centers.
If you are having problems eating, Saxton suggests asking your oncologist for a referral to a registered dietitian (RD). An RD can help you develop eating plans that may be better tolerated, while providing calories and nutrients.
One Final—But Important—Note
When you undergo cancer treatment, you can develop a weakened immune system. Avoiding foodborne illnesses is essential. Take the following steps to prevent this:
And remember, your doctors may have some helpful hints of their own. There are also some medicines that can stimulate your appetite, reduce nausea, and generally boost your mood.
American Cancer Society
National Cancer Institute
BC Cancer Agency
Canadian Cancer Society
Appetite changes. American Cancer Society website. Available at: http://www.cancer.... . Updated October 6, 2011. Accessed April 18, 2012.
Chemotherapy. American Cancer Society website. Available at: http://www.cancer.... . Updated February 2008. Accessed March 11, 2010.
Effect on cancer treatment on nutrition. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: http://www.cancer.... . Updated April 2009. Accessed March 11, 2010.
Nutrition for the person with cancer during treatment. American Cancer Society website. Available at: http://www.cancer.... . Updated October 6, 2011. Accessed April 18, 2012.
Once treatment starts. American Cancer Society website. Available at: http://www.cancer.... . Updated October 6, 2011. Accessed April 18, 2012.
Otto SE. Oncology Nursing . 4th ed. St. Louis, MO: Mosby, Inc; 2001.
Last reviewed May 2012 by Peter J. Lucas, MD