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How to Eat Right When You’re in Treatment for Cancer

If you’re being treated for cancer, it’s important for you to get the nutrients you need. They can help you feel better and stronger, and help you heal from your treatments and surgeries.

“When you have cancer, your nutritional needs are higher than they were before you had cancer,” said Lillian Swatek, a dietitian with Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center at Banner Gateway Medical Center in Gilbert, AZ. “Eating well during treatment can make your side effects less severe and can aid in recovery.” It can not only increase your chances of successful treatment but can also improve your quality of life, both during and after treatment. However, meeting those increased nutritional needs and eating healthily can sometimes be difficult.

Why it can be hard to get the nutrients you need

When you’re in treatment for cancer, you need to maintain your weight and muscle mass to help with recovery. But your cancer and the related treatments can cause side effects that make it hard for you to eat. You might find you have:

  • Difficulty chewing and swallowing
  • Changes in your taste
  • Lack of appetite
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Some changes that can help

“Some adjustments to your usual diet can help you manage side effects,” Swatek said. You can try to:

  • Eat smaller amounts but eat more often
  • Choose bland foods like crackers, scrambled eggs, plain yogurt and clear broth
  • Avoid foods that are harder to chew, swallow or digest
  • Suck on lemon or peppermint drops if you have a bad taste in your mouth
  • Sip liquids slowly throughout the day
  • Add sauce, gravy or salad dressing to foods if your mouth is dry
  • Marinate foods in spices and sauces if your taste changes
  • Cut food into small pieces—use a blender or food processor if you need to
  • Choose different foods and flavors in small portions to see what works for you
  • Talk to your nurse or doctor about your side effects since prescription medications might help

Focus on the right nutrients

If you’re being treated for cancer, it’s essential for you to get enough protein, especially after surgery and when you’re going through radiation or chemotherapy treatments. That’s because protein can help your body heal and fight infection. Aim to have some protein with every meal or snack. Reach for foods like eggs, seeds, nuts and nut butters, tofu and soy, dairy foods, fish, poultry and meat.

Fats are another important nutrient since they give your body energy. The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends choosing more of the healthy fats you’ll find in seafood and in olive, canola, peanut, safflower, sunflower, corn and flaxseed oils rather than the fats in animal products.

Carbohydrates also give your body energy. Choose fruits, vegetables and whole grains to get healthy carbs as well as vitamins, minerals and fiber.

You also want to be sure to stay hydrated. Good hydration can make some side effects of cancer treatment less severe. Pay attention to the color of your urine—if it’s not pale yellow, you might be dehydrated.

Drinking plenty of water can help you stay hydrated—add fruit or vegetables if you don’t like the flavor of plain water. Milk, sports drinks and foods that contain a lot of water like soup, yogurt and pudding can also help. If you drink coffee or tea, don’t have more than two cups a day—they can make your dry mouth worse. Alcoholic drinks don’t count toward your hydration, and you should talk to your doctor if you are consuming alcohol when you are being treated for cancer.

Why you might want to see a dietitian

You may want to consult with a dietitian who specializes in working with people who have cancer. A certified specialist in oncology nutrition (CSO) can help by offering evidence-based nutrition guidance.

A dietitian can work with you to find foods that you can tolerate and like to eat. They can also help you manage other medical conditions you might have in addition to cancer, such as diabetes, kidney disease, food allergies or bowel diseases.

A dietitian can also help you evaluate nutrition advice. Online and from well-meaning friends, you might come across myths and misinformation about nutrition and cancer. “For instance, many people with cancer think they cannot eat anything with sugar or carbs, or they have to follow a keto diet to fight cancer, but that’s not the case,” Swatek said. “There’s also no evidence that vitamins, minerals, herbs or other supplements alone can cure or treat cancer.”

After cancer treatment, a plant-based diet can help promote your long-term health and wellness. It is good to limit red meat, sugar, processed foods and alcohol. A dietitian can help you find the best diet to help reduce the odds of cancer recurring and to manage any long-term side effects from surgeries and treatment.

The bottom line

When you’re being treated for cancer, it’s crucial to eat right and get the nutrients you need to heal and stay strong. But it can be a challenge. If you’d like individualized tips from a dietitian or health care provider, reach out to Banner Health.

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