How can I eat well during cancer treatment?

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Christina Rollins
Nutrition & Dietetics
Good nutrition is vital when living with cancer. Cancer treatments have various side effects depending on if you are having surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Regardless of treatment method, be sure you are eating enough to maintain your body weight. Rapid weight loss is a sign that you are eating fewer calories per day than your body needs to survive. Unfortunately, quick and unintentional weight gain is often muscle mass, which leaves you weak and tired. 
To prevent weight loss during cancer treatment, try to eat six small meals per day. Include a variety of foods from each food group and strive for at least 2 portions of meat per day. If you are unable to tolerate regular meals, consider an oral nutritional supplement found over the counter at your local grocery store or pharmacy. 

If you are on a restricted diet, such as a low fat diet for heart disease, talk to your doctor about liberalizing (or easing up on) these restrictions. While avoid fat, cholesterol, and sodium is important for long term health, it is more important in the short term to stay strong enough to continue cancer treatment. 

If you are suffering from treatment-related side effects such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or poor appetite that are interfering with your eating, talk to your doctor. He or she may be able to prescribe a medication to help.
Eating well during cancer treatment needs to be individualized, and depends upon the type of cancer, type of treatment, other medical conditions and nutritional health before the cancer treatment started. Some patients are asked not to eat through their mouth but to use a "feeding tube", others lose weight no matter what they eat, and even some patients, especially with breast or prostate cancers can gain too much weight during treatment.

Ask your oncologist or oncology nurse if you are close to your ideal body weight at the start of treatment. Maintaining lean muscle is the most important goal, not a certain weight as fluid or fat can add weight without much benefit.

If you are encouraged to eat by mouth, make sure that you ask if you should follow the same guidelines that are promoted by for general health, for cardiac health and with cancer: a plant-based diet with non-animal or low fat protein sources, whole grains and lots of clean fruits and vegetables.

For more detailed information including time-tested recipes tailored to use during cancer treatment. Refer to LEARN to Live Through Cancer: What You need to Know and Do published by Demos Health.
The following is some general advice about eating during cancer treatment:
  • Give food a chance. Remember what sounds unappealing today may sound good tomorrow. An open mind and willingness to try new recipes is important.
  • Take advantage of the up times. When you're feeling well, prepare meals you can freeze for the down days. On the good days, eat when you feel hungry, even if it isn't mealtime. Those nutrients can be stored in your body for later use.
  • Make use of time savers. There are many foods available that can be prepared with little time or cooking. Frozen dinners or some canned foods can be served with fruit, milk, and a buttered roll to give you a nutritious meal. There are also appliances that can help save time, such as food processors, blenders, toaster ovens, and microwaves.
  • Discuss your eating problems with your doctor and dietitian. Do not hesitate to ask questions. Before trying home remedies, be sure your problems are not symptoms needing medical attention.
  • Surroundings make a difference. An attractively set table with flowers or other such items can take your mind off of a poor appetite. Good odors also help -- freshly baked bread or a cake baking. Eating with friends or family, music at dinner time, varying the place in your house where you eat, or even having a picnic may provide a pleasant feeling for your meal.
  • Avoid foods that don't interest you.
Natalie Weiss
Nutrition & Dietetics
Cancer treatment puts a lot of stress on your body. It is important during this time that you include foods to help support healing and repair. If your appetite is good, try to eat a diet high in fruits and vegetables, at least 5 cups per day. Fruits and vegetables are high in natural cancer fighting components such as antioxidants. A cookbook designed for people going through cancer treatment is extremely helpful, I recommend The Cancer Fighting Kitchen by Rebecca Katz.
It is crucial to eat well before, during, and after cancer treatment. Find a Registered Dietitian board certified in oncology nutrition in your area by visiting www.eatright.org. The Registered Dietitian can create an individualized nutritional plan for you during all stages of cancer treatment.   
Studies show that people who eat well during cancer treatment can better tolerate side effects and fight illness.
  • Follow special food-handling guidelines. Because your immune response is weaker than usual, you must be extra careful about germs. This fact sheet explains safe ways to store and prepare food to prevent exposure to germs. Please share these guideline with anyone who may be preparing or bringing you food.
  • Choose foods wisely. Continue to eat plenty of calories and protein. Choose foods that are safe and free from harmful germs. The table in this fact sheet recommends specific foods that are allowed and not allowed during cancer treatment.
  • Manage side effects. You may have side effects that make you not want to eat. The last page of this fact sheet gives ideas for what to eat when you don’t feel well.
  • Stay in touch with a registered dietitian. A dietitian can answer questions and provide suggestions for specific eating problems you may have.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.