Eating Before Cancer Treatment

Some healthy eating suggestions that will help your loved one’s body cope better with his or her cancer treatments.

When your cancer was first diagnosed, your doctor talked to you about a treatment plan. This may have involved surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and biologic (immunotherapy), or some combination of those treatments.

All of these methods of treating cancer kill cells. In the process of killing the cancer cells, some healthy cells are also damaged. That is what causes the side effects of cancer treatment. Side effects that can affect your ability to eat include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Changes in weight (either losing or gaining weight)
  • Sore mouth or throat
  • Dry mouth
  • Dental and gum problems
  • Changes in sense of taste or smell
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Constipation
  • Fatigue and/or depression

You may or may not have any of these side effects. Many factors determine whether you will have any and how severe they will be. These factors include the type of cancer you have, the part of your body being treated, the type and length of treatment, and the dose of treatment. The good news is that if you do have side effects they can often be well-controlled. Most side effects also go away after treatment ends. Your doctor or nurse can tell you more about your chances of having side effects and what they might be like.

Recommendations about food and eating for cancer patients can be very different from the usual suggestions for healthful eating. This can be confusing for many patients because these new suggestions may seem to be the opposite of what they’ve always heard. Nutrition recommendations usually stress eating lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grain breads and cereals; including a moderate amount of meat and dairy products; and cutting back on fat, sugar, alcohol, and salt. More information and tips on these recommendations are covered in the section After Treatment Ends.

Nutrition recommendations for cancer patients may focus on helping you eat more higher calorie foods that emphasize protein. Recommendations might include eating or drinking more milk, cream, cheese, and cooked eggs. Other suggestions might include increasing your use of sauces and gravies, or changing your cooking methods to include more butter, margarine, or oil. Sometimes, nutrition recommendations for cancer patients suggest that you eat less of certain high-fiber foods because these foods can aggravate problems such as diarrhea or a sore mouth.

Nutrition recommendations for cancer patients are different because they are designed to help build up your strength and help you withstand the effects of your cancer and its treatment. When you are healthy, eating enough food to get the nutrients you need is usually not a problem. During cancer treatment, however, this can become a challenge, especially if you have side effects or simply don’t feel well.

Preparing Yourself For Cancer Treatment

Until your treatment actually starts, you won’t know exactly what, if any, side effects you may have or how you’ll feel. One way to prepare is to think of your treatment as a time for you to concentrate on yourself and on getting well. Here are some other ways to get ready:

Think Positively

  • Many people have few or no eating-related side effects. Even if you do, they may be mild, and most go away after cancer treatment ends. Also, there are new drugs now that can work well to control side effects.
  • Having a positive attitude, talking out your feelings, becoming well-informed about your cancer and treatment, and planning ways to cope can all help reduce worry and anxiety, make you feel more in control, and help you keep your appetite.
  • Give food a chance. Even if you do have eating problems, you’ll have days when eating is a pleasure.

Eat A Healthy Diet

  • A healthy diet is vital for a person’s body to work its best. This is even more important for cancer patients.
  • If you’ve been eating 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. You may even be able to handle higher doses of certain treatments. For example, we know that some cancer treatments are actually much more effective if the patient is well-nourished and getting enough calories and protein in his or her diet.
  • Don’t be afraid to try new foods. Some things you may never have liked before may taste good to you during treatment.

Plan Ahead

  • Stock the pantry and freezer with favorite foods so that you won’t need to shop as often. Include foods you know you can eat even when you are sick.
  • Keep foods handy that need little or no preparation, for example, pudding, peanut butter, tuna fish, cheese, and eggs.
  • Do some cooking in advance and freeze in meal-sized portions.
  • Talk to friends or family members about helping with shopping and cooking. Or, ask a friend or family member to manage that job for you.
  • Talk to a registered dietitian about your concerns and what you might expect. She or he can give you ideas and help you plan meals. Ask for help in developing a grocery list with foods that might help with potential side effects, such as constipation or nausea. Ask about what has worked for other patients.

© Copyright FamilyCare America, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Reprinted from Eating Hints For Cancer Patients Before, During, and After Treatment, NIH Publication #98-2079, developedby the United States National Institutes of Health National Cancer Institute.

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