People living with cancer may have different nutrition goals and challenges, depending on their:
- Type of disease or treatment
- Stage of disease or treatment
- Other medical conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes or depression
Your disease and treatment may increase your body's need for calories and protein. For instance, chemotherapy, other drug therapies and radiation therapy all create a need for more calories and protein each day. Side effects of your treatment may make it difficult to take in enough calories and protein. Side effects may include:
- Loss of appetite
- Change in taste and smell
- Difficulty chewing or swallowing
- Decreased ability to absorb nutrients from food
You can often manage side effects with drugs or other therapies so you can get the protein-rich nutrition you need to:
- Tolerate and recover from treatment
- Promote healing, including growth of new blood cells
- Fight infection
- Prevent weight loss
- Provide energy and prevent muscle loss
- Maintain general health
Eat Your Fruits and Vegetables, Too
Aim for 5-10 servings of fruits and vegetables each day. One serving is half a cup for most fruits and veggies and one cup for leafy greens, melons and berries. Include one or more servings of cruciferous vegetables in your diet almost every day. Cruciferous vegetables include broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale, watercress and radishes.
In some cases, your doctor may advise you to follow special guidelines for immunosuppressed patients.
Drink Enough Water
Drinking enough water during cancer treatment is especially important because:
- Certain cancer therapies, including chemotherapy, some drug therapies and radiation therapy, can cause dehydration
- Some treatment side effects, such as diarrhea or vomiting, can contribute to dehydration
- Liquids can help relieve fatigue or constipation
Signs of dehydration include: thirst, dry or sticky mouth, dizziness, headaches, nausea, constipation, dry skin, weight loss, and dark urine.
If you're taking oral medications, drink plenty of water or other noncaffeinated beverages with your treatment team's guidance. Try to drink water and other approved liquids throughout the day. Sipping even small amounts of water at regular intervals helps if that's all you can manage. Do not wait until you feel dehydrated and thirsty to drink.
Ask your doctor about the amount of water you should consume each day. Your treatment team may also recommend liquids such as broths or sports drinks, which can restore your body's balance of electrolytes. Electrolytes, such as sodium and potassium, have many important functions in the body.
If water does not appeal to you, you can also drink flavored fluids. It’s best to avoid alcohol which can increase your body’s fluid loss.
20 Ways to Boost Your Nutrition
Side effects such as loss of appetite, nausea, and mouth and throat sores can make you cringe at the thought of eating. But getting enough calories and protein is essential to your recovery and well-being. If eating is difficult for you, try these tips to get the calories and nutrients you need:
- Eat frequent, small meals or snacks, four to six times a day.
- Keep prepared snacks or small meals on hand and visible.
- Drink high calorie liquids such as juices, soups or shakes if eating solid food is a problem.
- To add calories, blend cooked foods or soups with high-calorie liquids such as gravy, milk, cream or broth instead of water.
- Use healthy fats like olive oil, avocado and nut butters to add calories.
- Sip water and other clear liquids such as broth, ginger ale or lemonade frequently to prevent dehydration.
- If water tastes unpleasant, try taking in liquids through food, such as watermelon; flavor water with fresh cut fruit; or try sports drinks, tea or milk.
- Choose soft foods or foods that can be cooked until tender.
- Cut foods into bite-sized pieces or grind or blend them so that less chewing is needed.
- Bring snacks when you're away from home.
- Try new foods and recipes to accommodate changes in taste or smell.
- If food tastes bland, try seasoning it with spices.
- If your mouth is sore, try non-acidic, non-spicy foods.
- If meat is not enjoyable, try getting protein from other sources, such as eggs, cheese, nuts or high-protein smoothies.
- When possible, take a walk before meals to improve your appetite.
- Eat with friends or family members when possible. When eating alone, listen to the radio or watch TV.
- Make a list of your favorite foods and be sure to have these foods on hand.
- Accept help with food shopping and meal preparation.
- Try over-the-counter high calorie, high protein drinks like Carnation Breakfast Essentials, Ensure, Boost or Orgain.
- Look into cooking classes for people with cancer. The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society region in your area may be able to help you find some.
For some patients, weight gain may occur as a result of increased appetite or fluid retention (“bloating”) associated with certain drug therapies. Weight-loss diets are not recommended without proper medical guidance. For help, ask your oncologist to refer you to a dietitian who can design an appropriate diet for you.
Cancer treatment weakens your immune system, which puts you at increased risk for food-borne illness. Therefore, it's essential that you handle food properly and safely. Here are some ways you and your family can help keep your food safe:
- Keep your hands, counters, dishes, cutting boards and utensils clean.
- Change or wash sponges and dishtowels often.
- Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly before peeling.
- Use separate dishes, cutting boards and utensils for preparing raw meat, fish or poultry.
- Do not rinse raw meat or poultry before cooking because bacteria can spread to the sink or counter.
- Keep raw eggs, meat, poultry, seafood and the juices of all food that will be cooked away from foods that won’t be cooked.
- Thaw frozen items in the microwave or refrigerator, not on the kitchen counter.
- Marinate food in the refrigerator.
- Use a food thermometer to make sure that meat is fully cooked.
- Read the expiration dates on food products and look for signs of food spoilage. If in doubt, throw it out.
- After grocery shopping, go directly home and put perishable food into the refrigerator or freezer right away.
Here is an easy way to remember food safety basics:
Clean - wash hands and surfaces often.
Separate - keep different types of foods apart.
Cook - ensure food is cooked to a proper temperature.
Chill - refrigerate quickly
- Download or order The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s free fact sheet, Food and Nutrition Facts.