Food preparation and nutrition suggestions that can help your loved one during his or her cancer treatments.
Preventing Food-Borne Illness
Cancer patients undergoing treatment can develop a weakened immune system because most anticancer drugs decrease the body’s ability to make white blood cells, the cells that fight infection. That’s why cancer patients should be especially careful to avoid infections and food-borne illnesses. Here are some tips to help you prevent food-borne illness:
- Wash all raw fruits and vegetables well. If it can’t be well washed (as with raspberries), avoid it. Scrub rough surfaces, like the skin of melons, prior to cutting.
- Carefully wash your hands and food preparation surfaces (knives, cutting boards) before and after preparing food, especially after handling raw meat.
- Thaw meat in the refrigerator, not on the kitchen counter.
- Be sure to cook meat and eggs thoroughly.
- Avoid raw shellfish and use only pasteurized or processed ciders and juices and pasteurized milk and cheese.
Special Diet For Special Needs
When you have special needs because of your cancer or treatment, your doctor or registered dietitian may prescribe a special diet. For example, a soft diet may be best if your mouth, throat, esophagus, or stomach is sore. Or, if your treatment makes it difficult for you to digest dairy products, you may need to follow a low-lactose diet. Other special diets include a clear-liquid diet, a full-liquid diet, and a fiber-restricted diet.
Some special diets are well balanced and can be followed for long periods of time. Others, however, should be followed for only a few days because they may not provide enough nutrients for the long term. If you think you need a special diet, talk with your doctor and a registered dietitian. Together, you can work out a plan. You also should work with your doctor and dietitian if you are already on a special diet for a disease such as diabetes, kidney, or heart disease.
Lactose intolerance means that your body can’t digest or absorb the milk sugar called lactose. Milk, other milk-based dairy products (such as cheese and ice cream), and foods to which milk has been added (such as pudding) may contain lactose.
Lactose intolerance may occur after treatment with some antibiotics, with radiation to the stomach or with any treatment that affects the digestive tract. The part of your intestines that digests lactose may not work properly during treatment. For some people, the symptoms of lactose intolerance (gas, cramps, diarrhea) disappear a few weeks or months after the treatments end or when the intestine heals. For others, a permanent change in eating habits may be needed.
If you have this problem, your doctor may advise you to follow a diet that is low in foods that contain lactose. Talk to a registered dietitian to get advice and specific tips about how to follow a low-lactose diet. Your supermarket should carry milk and other products that have been modified to reduce or eliminate the lactose. You can also make your own low-lactose or lactose free foods.
Extra Vitamins And Minerals:
Many cancer patients want to know whether vitamins, minerals, or other dietary supplements (such as phytochemicals) will help “build them up” or help fight their cancer. We know that patients who eat well during cancer treatment are better able to cope with their disease and any side effects of treatment. However, there is no scientific evidence that dietary supplements or herbal remedies can cure cancer or stop it from coming back.
The National Cancer Institute strongly urges you to depend on traditional, healthy foods for vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. Talk to your doctor, nurse, registered dietitian, or a pharmacist before taking any vitamin or mineral supplements. Too much of some vitamins or minerals can be just as dangerous as too little. Large doses of some vitamins may even stop your cancer treatment from working the way it should. To avoid problems, don’t take these products on your own. Follow your doctor’s guidance.
You may hear or read about many different kinds of treatments people have tried to cure their disease. A therapy is called complementary when it is used in addition to conventional treatments; it is often called alternative when it is used instead of conventional treatment. A number of medical centers are evaluating the scientific aspects of complementary and alternative therapies and developing studies to test them. Many of these treatments have not been thoroughly studied, and we have no proof that they work or that they are safe. Other treatments have been studied, and we know they don’t help or are harmful. It is important to talk with your doctor or nurse if you are considering trying any of these treatments, because some therapies may interfere with your standard treatment or may be harmful when used with conventional treatment. He or she can talk to you about any research that has been done and whether or not the treatment is safe or would interfere with your treatment. NCI strongly urges you to follow a treatment program prescribed by a doctor who uses accepted and proven methods or treatments. People who depend upon unconventional treatments alone may lose valuable treatment time and reduce their chances of controlling their cancer and getting well.
Suggestions For Caregivers
- Be prepared for the patient’s tastes to change from day to day. Some days he or she won’t want favorite foods because they don’t taste good. Other times, he or she will be able to eat a dish that couldn’t be tolerated just the day before.
- Have food within easy reach at home.
- Have meals and snacks ready so the patient can have something to eat when he or she is ready.
- Be prepared for times when the patient is able to eat only one or two foods for a few days in a row, until side effects diminish. Even if he or she can’t eat at all, still encourage plenty of fluids.
- Talk to the patient about needs and concerns, and about ideas that might work best. A willingness to be flexible and supportive no matter what will help the patient feel in control of the situation.
- Try not to push the patient into eating and drinking. Encourage and support without being overwhelming.
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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.