Nutrition for the Person With Cancer During Treatment

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Cancer and cancer treatment affect nutrition

When you are healthy, eating enough food to get the nutrients and calories you need is not usually a problem. In fact, most nutrition guidelines stress eating lots of vegetables, fruits, and whole-grain products; limiting the amount of red meat you eat, especially those that are processed or high in fat; cutting back on fat, sugar, alcohol, and salt; and staying at a healthy weight. But when you are being treated for cancer, these things can be hard to do, especially if you have side effects or just don’t feel well. So, you might need to change your diet to help build up your strength and withstand the effects of your cancer and its treatment. This may mean eating things that are not normally recommended when you are in good health. For instance, you may need high-fat, high-calorie foods to keep up your weight, or thick, cool foods like ice cream or milk shakes because sores in your mouth and throat are making it hard to eat anything. The type of cancer, your treatment, and any side effects you have must be considered when you are trying to figure out the best ways to get the nutrition your body needs.

When your cancer was first diagnosed, your doctor talked with you about a treatment plan. This may have meant surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, biologic therapy (immunotherapy), or some combination of treatments. All of these treatments kill cancer cells. But in the process some healthy cells are also damaged. This damage is what causes cancer treatment side effects. Some of the more common side effects that can affect your ability to eat are:

  • Loss of appetite (anorexia)
  • Sore mouth or throat
  • Dry mouth
  • Dental and gum problems
  • Changes in taste or smell
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Feeling very tired all the time (fatigue)
  • Depression

You might or might not have any of these side effects. Many factors determine whether you will have any side effects and how bad they will be. These factors include the type of cancer you have, the part of the body affected, the type and length of your treatment, and the dose of treatment.

Many side effects can be controlled, and most go away over time after treatment ends. Talk with your doctor or nurse about your chances of having side effects and what can be done to help control them. After your treatment starts, tell your cancer care team about any side effects that are not being controlled. Let them know if the medicines they have given you to control side effects do not work, so that others can be used.

Last Medical Review: 05/26/2012
Last Revised: 03/15/2013