Cancer Treatment Side Effects and Diet
Dietary interventions for cancer patients are designed to maintain adequate oral nutrition intake while attempting to treat or alleviate the symptoms caused by cancer or the cancer treatment. For the purpose of this educational activity, the focus is on nutrition for cancer treatment side effects rather than nutrition for cancer prevention. It is important to note that diet recommendations vary among patients depending on their symptoms and side effects.
The type of cancer, location, treatment, and side effects determine the nutrition intervention needed. The object of most cancer treatment is simple: destroy the cancer cells. Unfortunately, healthy cells often get damaged along the way and this is the source of the side effects.
Diet intervention is used to treat a multitude of cancer treatment side effects. These include:
- Weight loss
- Lack of appetite
- Early satiety
- Painful or dry mouth and throat
- Changes in taste and smell
- Nausea and vomiting
The objective is to minimize these symptoms and to provide adequate nutrition to keep the patient strong during and after cancer treatment. A healthcare professional’s responsibility is to encourage patients and make suggestions for achieving adequate nutrition intake. Unfortunately, dealing with these side effects can be tiring for the patient, both physically and emotionally, contributing to his or her inability to consume appropriate nutrition. Encouraging a patient to enlist the help of family and friends or mental healthcare professionals is appropriate if needed. The following information provides guidelines and suggestions/survival skills for dietary treatment of the side effects listed earlier.
If weight loss alone is the problem without concurrent nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or other problems, a high calorie, high protein diet may be recommended. Keep in mind that to increase calories and protein during this time, suggestions may seem contradictory to conventional nutritional or healthy eating advice. That is because this diet is treating the specific problem of weight loss. This is a temporary diet until weight and medical condition are satisfactory.
Weight Loss Survival Skills
- Eat small meals often, especially if early satiety is a problem.
- If appetite is better during certain times of the day (often in the morning), try eating during this time regardless of conventional mealtime.
- Try milkshakes or commercial liquid supplements. They are a great source of nutrition that may be easier to consume.
- Do not skimp on the margarine or fats, and forego low-calorie diet products.
- Add cheese (a high calorie item with protein) to soup, stews, potatoes, vegetables, etc.
- Nuts and seeds are a great high calorie, low volume option if tolerated. They also are a good source of protein.
- Stress that no foods are off limits if they are tolerable. This means that items such as desserts, a great high calorie source, are perfectly acceptable.
Lack of Appetite/Early Satiety
Often a diet of six small meals is ordered to provide frequent limited volumes with the goal of increasing total intake for the day. It is also important to keep in mind that the patient’s emotional status plays a significant role in appetite levels. Recognizing this and providing the patient with emotional support or referring him/her to the appropriate mental health professional may assist with appetite problems.
Lack of Appetite/Early Satiety Survival Skills
- Eat small amounts often. Encourage snacking, eating every two to three hours.
- Try liquid forms of nutrition (commercial or homemade).Sometimes appetite for solids may be diminished in a patient who readily accepts fluids.
- Eat when hungry; do not wait for meal times.
- Try to make meal time a relaxed social event rather than a battle of wills. Pressure to eat often only exacerbates a poor appetite.
Painful or Dry Mouth and Throat
Mouth pain or dryness is often a result of cancer treatment. While there are medications and oral treatments to ease pain and encourage healing, eating acidic foods or foods with a firm consistency may worsen the situation. Often a soft, bland diet is the diet order of choice.
Painful or Dry Mouth and Throat Survival Skills
- Choose easy-to-chew foods such as mashed potatoes, ground meats, eggs, canned (nonacidic) fruits, oatmeal, etc.
- Limit/avoid spicy foods or acidic foods such as tomato and citrus fruits.
- Encourage good oral hygiene.
- Take small bites and cut food into small pieces.
- Use bland gravies or sauces to ease swallowing.
- Avoid hot foods.
- Drink fluid/take sips often throughout the day.
- Use hard candy and gum to stimulate saliva production.
- Discuss artificial saliva products with your health practitioner.
Taste and Smell Changes
Taste and smell are strongly linked and affect appetite. Even foods that normally have a pleasant aroma may not be appealing to the patient. There is no specific diet order for this. However, there are some suggestions that may help.
Taste and Smell Changes Survival Skills
- Avoid restaurants where many food odors mix; eat at home as much as possible.
- Have someone else prepare food when possible; avoid the kitchen area.
- Avoid foods that have a strong odor such as cabbage, tomato products, and stir-fry/Chinese food.
- Do not open foods yourself. Strong odors get trapped under lids and plastic wrap and can be overwhelming.
- Sweet foods often taste better than meats. Encourage these as calorie sources or sweeten a protein dish by cooking in orange juice or using a sweet sauce.
Nausea and Vomiting
Many of the preceding suggestions may also help when nausea and vomiting are an issue. There is no specific diet order, except when a patient has an acute bout of intractable nausea and vomiting. In that case, the diet order is a progression from clear liquids (water, juice, broth, popsicles) to thicker liquids, soft foods, and then regular foods if tolerated.
Nausea and Vomiting Survival Skills
- Separate drinking liquids from eating solid meals by at least thirty minutes.
- Avoid large meals or eating past initial feeling of fullness.
- Limit fatty foods such as fried foods, high fat meats, and whole dairy products.
- Try to keep something in your stomach and avoid that empty feeling. Crackers, toast, or anything dry usually works well.
- Avoid carbonated fluids.
- If a food sounds unappealing, don’t force it.
- Try not to push foods that are normally your favorites at this time. This can make them seem unappealing later, even when nausea and vomiting are not current problems.
- Do not lie down immediately after eating.
- Avoid clothing that constricts around the stomach.
When a patient has diarrhea, re-hydration with water and sodium- and potassium-containing beverages (sports drinks, fruit juices, broths) is important. The diet recommended might be low fiber, low residue, increase oral fluids. This type of diet limits the amount of material that is not easily digested, such as fiber in fruits and vegetables and the lactose (milk sugar) in milk in an effort to decrease the volume going through the colon.
Diarrhea Survival Skills
- Avoid high fiber fruits and vegetables, especially broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and corn. Instead, eat cooked/canned vegetables, peeled fruits and vegetables.
- Switch to white versus whole-wheat grains and cereals.
- Avoid drinking milk. After the diarrhea subsides, slowly add milk back to your diet, stopping if the diarrhea returns. Temporary lactose intolerance could be to blame.
- Avoid large meals.
- Avoid caffeine.
Pain medications may cause or exacerbate constipation. The diet ordered is usually high fiber with adequate fluid, the goal being to increase stool size and softness for easier passage.
Constipation Survival Skills
- Drink plenty of liquids, including at least 64 ounces of water per day.
- Caffeinated beverages or hot drinks may stimulate a bowel movement.
- Consume high fiber foods include raw vegetables, whole grains, beans, and peas. Foods with at least three grams of dietary fiber per serving according to the food label are considered high in fiber.
- Light exercise or increased movement may help stimulate bowel movement.
- Check with your physician regarding medications to treat constipation, but be sure to continue to consume adequate fluids.
These survival skills provide basic ideas to help cancer patients in coping with treatment side effects. Ultimately, whatever works best for the patient, even unconventional food, is the best diet plan. Keep in mind that encouragement and food experimentation are the only ways to find a diet solution.