Nutrition for the Cancer Patient

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Harvard Medical School
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Nutrition for the Cancer Patient

Nutrition and Cancer
Nutrition for the Cancer Patient
Nutrition for the Cancer Patient
While good nutrition may not cure cancer, diet does play a role in cancer treatment.
InteliHealth Medical Content

Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

While good nutrition may not cure cancer, dietary factors do play an important role in cancer treatment. When you're battling a serious disease, adequate nutrition is needed to maintain strength and overall well-being, keep the immune system functioning optimally, prevent the breakdown of body tissue and help the body heal after surgery or other treatment. A well-nourished person is better able to tolerate treatment side effects and may be able to handle more aggressive treatments.

In general, a cancer patient should get the best possible mix of nutrients. Your doctor may have other recommendations specific to your situation, so let him or her know that you are interested in nutrition advice. If you are taking any nutritional supplements, tell your doctor since certain supplements may interfere with some chemotherapy drugs.

Nutrition can become a problem for people with cancer for several reasons. The cancer itself may interfere with eating and digestion: There may be difficulty chewing and swallowing, blockages in the gastrointestinal tract due to tumor growth or interference with digestive enzymes and hormones. Cancer treatment such as radiation and chemotherapy can cause nausea, vomiting, difficulty swallowing and dry mouth. Surgery also can make it difficult to eat for a while. There may be changes in taste or smell that can deter good eating. Depression and lack of energy may make a person not want to eat. Appetite and metabolism may change so much that nutrition is compromised.

Loss of appetite is called anorexia. It can be caused by the cancer itself, cancer treatment or depression. Cachexia is the term used to describe the wasting and dramatic weight loss seen in many cancer patients. It may or may not be linked with anorexia, and often an increase in the body's metabolism makes adequate nutrition difficult. In cachexia, body organs starve and waste along with muscle and fat. While anorexia and cachexia may not be preventable, attention to eating and good nutrition will allow a better quality of life, help the body tolerate treatment and can contribute to better resistance to infection.

Here are some tips to improve food intake:

  • Find ways to relax while eating. Choose a quiet place, put on soothing music and try to keep distractions to a minimum.
  • Make the eating experience as appealing as possible by paying attention to colors and presentation. Use your favorite plates, put a vase of flowers on the table and arrange the food in an attractive way.
  • Eat when you feel like eating, not just when it's mealtime. Nausea or lack of appetite may return by dinnertime, so take advantage of the times you feel you can eat.
  • Eat small meals throughout the day instead of three big meals that may not be tolerated as well.
  • Keep snacks handy and eat them between meals.
  • Keep your favorite foods available.
  • If you can eat nothing else, sometimes a favorite food will spark a little appetite.
  • Experiment with different foods -- the change may stimulate your appetite. Try to increase protein intake.
  • Eat foods that are warm or at room temperature. Cold or hot foods may be uncomfortable.
  • Learn which food smells are appealing to you, and use them to stimulate your appetite. If the smell of apple pie sets your mouth watering, bake a ready-made pie, or put apple slices with cinnamon on a baking tray in the oven.
  • Once your appetite is aroused, eat your meal.
  • Avoid cooking foods with unappealing smells.
  • Eat foods with little or no smell, such as cottage cheese or crackers.
  • If others are preparing food for you, make sure they know your tastes. Ask them to add flavors you like, or to change the way they cook if it is unpalatable to you.
  • Keep prepared foods available for those times when you are too tired to cook. If your sense of taste is diminished, spark up your food with strong (yet non-irritating) flavors, such as fruit juices or Italian dressing.
  • Add extra calories to your food by adding dry milk, honey, jam or brown sugar whenever possible.

If you are frequently nauseated:

  • If you are vomiting, do not try to eat or drink until your vomiting is under control. Call your doctor to see if medication might be appropriate.
  • Eat crackers, toast, oatmeal, soft bland vegetables and fruits, clear liquids and skinned baked chicken. These usually are tolerated well.
  • Avoid fatty, greasy or fried foods, sweets and hot or spicy foods. All are harder to digest.
  • Eat in a well-ventilated, cool room. A hot, stuffy room will make the nausea worse.
  • Eat small amounts throughout the day.
  • Drink liquids between meals, not while you are eating (except for small amounts to moisten food if your mouth is dry).
  • Don't force yourself to eat during nausea. This may cause you to develop aversions to your favorite foods.
  • Eat in a room other than the kitchen. Cooking smells may make your nausea worse.

If you are having physical trouble with eating due to cancer or treatment:

  • Avoid foods that may irritate your mouth, such as spicy, acidic, citrus or salty foods.
  • Take very small bites of food at a time instead of full mouthfuls.
  • Cook foods until they are very tender or even mushy.
  • Puree foods in a blender or food processor.
  • Mix foods with broth, sauces or thin gravies to make them easier to swallow.
  • Drink through a straw if that makes it easier.




Last updated October 01, 2013

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