Nutrition for the Person with Cancer during Treatment
Nutrition is an important part of cancer treatment. Eating the right kinds of foods before, during, and after treatment can help you feel better and stay stronger.
Benefits of Good Nutrition during Cancer Treatment
Good nutrition is especially important if you have cancer because both the illness and its treatments can change the way you eat. Cancer and cancer treatments can also affect the way your body tolerates certain foods and uses nutrients.
The nutrient needs of people with cancer vary from person to person. Your cancer care team can help you identify your nutrition goals and plan ways to help you meet them. Eating well while you’re being treated for cancer might help you:
Eating well means eating a variety of foods to get the nutrients your body needs to fight cancer. These nutrients include protein, carbohydrates, fat, water, vitamins, and minerals.
Cancer and Cancer Treatment Affect Nutrition
When you’re healthy, eating enough food to get the nutrients and calories you need is not usually a problem. Most nutrition guidelines stress eating lots of vegetables, fruits, and whole-grain products; limiting the amount of red meat you eat, especially those that are processed or high in fat; cutting back on fat, sugar, alcohol, and salt; and staying at a healthy weight. But when you’re being treated for cancer, these things can be hard to do, especially if you have side effects or just don’t feel well.
During cancer treatment you might need to change your diet to help build up your strength and withstand the effects of the cancer and its treatment. This may mean eating things that aren’t normally recommended when you are in good health. For instance, you may need high-fat, high-calorie foods to keep up your weight, or thick, cool foods like ice cream or milk shakes because sores in your mouth and throat are making it hard to eat anything. The type of cancer, your treatment, and any side affects you have must be considered when trying to figure out the best ways to get the nutrition your body needs.
When your cancer was first diagnosed, your doctor talked with you about a treatment plan. This may have meant surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, biologic therapy (immunotherapy), or some combination of treatments. All of these treatments kill cancer cells. But in the process, healthy cells are damaged, too. This damage is what causes cancer treatment side effects. Some of the more common side effects that can affect eating are:
You might – or might not – have any of these side effects. Many factors determine whether you’ll have side effects and how bad they’ll be. These factors include the type of cancer you have, the part of the body affected, the type and length of treatment, and the dose of treatment.
Many side effects can be controlled, and most go away over time after treatment ends. Talk with your cancer care team about your chances of having side effects and what can be done to help control them. After your treatment starts, tell your cancer care team about any side effects that aren’t controlled. Let them know if the medicines they’ve given you to help with side effects do not work, so that others can be used.
BEFORE TREATMENT BEGINS
Until you start treatment, you won’t know what, if any, side affects you may have or how you will feel. One way to prepare is to look at your treatment as a time to focus on yourself and on getting well. Here are some other ways to get ready:
Make plans now
You can reduce your anxiety about treatment and side effects by taking action now. Talk to your cancer care team about the things that worry you. Learn as much as you can about the cancer, your treatment plan, and how you might feel during treatment. Planning how you’ll cope with possible side effects can make you feel more in control and ready for the changes that may come.
Here are some tips to help you get ready for treatment:
For those whose cancer treatment will include radiation to the head or neck, you may be advised to have a feeding tube placed in your stomach before starting treatment. This allows feeding when it gets hard to swallow, and can prevent problems with nutrition and dehydration during treatment.
ONCE TREATMENT STARTS
Your body needs a healthy diet to function at its best. This is even more important if you have cancer. With a healthy diet, you’ll go into treatment with reserves to help keep up your strength, prevent body tissue from breaking down, rebuild tissue, and maintain your defenses against infection. People who eat well are better able to cope with side effects of treatment. And you may even be able to handle higher doses of certain drugs. In fact, some cancer treatments work better in people who are well-nourished and are getting enough calories and protein. Try these tips:
If you can’t do any of the above during this time, don’t worry about it. Help is available if or when you need it. Sometimes diet changes are needed to get the extra fluids, protein, and calories you need. Tell your cancer care team about any problems you have.
Snack as needed
During cancer treatment your body often needs extra calories and protein to help you maintain your weight and heal as quickly as possible. If you’re losing weight, snacks can help you meet those needs, keep up your strength and energy level, and help you feel better. During treatment you may have to rely on snacks that are less healthy sources of calories to meet your needs. Keep in mind that this is just for a short while – once side effects go away you can return to a healthier diet. Try these tips to make it easier to add snacks to your daily routine:
If you’re able to eat normally and maintain your weight without snacks, then don’t include them.
Tips to get more calories and protein
Don’t forget about physical activity
Physical activity has many benefits. It helps you maintain muscle mass, strength, stamina, and bone strength. It can help reduce depression, stress, fatigue, nausea, and constipation. It can also improve your appetite. So, if you don’t already exercise, talk to your doctor about aiming for at least 150 minutes of moderate activity, like walking, each week. If your doctor approves, start small (maybe 5 to 10 minutes each day) and as you are able, work up to the goal of 150 minutes a week. Listen to your body, and rest when you need to. Now is not the time to push yourself to exercise. Do what you can when you’re up to it.
MANAGING EATING PROBLEMS CAUSED BY SURGERY, RADIATION, AND CHEMOTHERAPY
Different cancer treatments can cause different kinds of problems that may make it hard to eat or drink. Here are some tips on how to manage nutrition problems depending on the type of treatment you receive:
After surgery, the body needs extra calories and protein for wound healing and recovery. This is when many people have pain and feel tired. They also may be unable to eat a normal diet because of surgery-related side effects. The body’s ability to use nutrients may also be changed by surgery that involves any part of the digestive tract (like the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, pancreas, colon, or rectum).
The type of side effects radiation causes depends on the area of the body being treated, the size of the area being treated, the type and total dose of radiation, and the number of treatments.
Side effects usually start around the second or third week of treatment and peak about two-thirds of the way through treatment. After radiation ends, most side effects last 3 or 4 weeks, but some may last much longer.
Chemotherapy (chemo) side effects depend on what kind of chemo drugs you take and how you take them.
Most people get chemo at an outpatient center. It may take anywhere from a few minutes to many hours. Make sure you eat something beforehand. Most people find that a light meal or snack an hour or so before chemo works best. If you’ll be there several hours, plan ahead and bring a small meal or snack in an insulated bag or cooler. Find out if there’s a refrigerator or microwave you can use.
Some side effects of chemo go away within hours of getting treatment. If side effects last longer, tell your cancer care team. There are things that can be done to lessen eating-related side effects. And prompt attention to eating-related side effects can help keep up your weight and energy level and help you feel better.
Source: The American Cancer Society