Nutrition for the Person With Cancer During Treatment

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Managing eating problems caused by surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy

Different cancer treatments can cause different kinds of problems that may make it hard to eat or drink. Here are some tips on how to manage nutrition problems depending on the type of treatment you receive:

Surgery

After surgery, the body needs extra calories and protein for wound healing and recovery. This is when many people have pain and feel tired. They also may be unable to eat a normal diet because of surgery-related side effects. The body’s ability to use nutrients may also be changed by surgery that involves any part of the digestive tract (like the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, pancreas, colon, or rectum).

See the section called “How to cope with common eating problems” for tips on dealing with some of the problems that can result from surgery. Be sure to talk to your cancer care team about any problems you’re having so they can help you manage them.

Visit our website at www.cancer.org to find out more about surgery as a cancer treatment.

Radiation therapy

The type of side effects radiation causes depends on the area of the body being treated, the size of the area being treated, the type and total dose of radiation, and the number of treatments.

The following chart shows possible eating-related side effects of radiation, according to the part of body being treated. Some of these side effects happen during treatment while others may not happen until after treatment.

Part of body being treated

Eating-related side effects that might happen during treatment

Eating-related side effects that might happen more than 90 days after treatment

Brain, spinal column

Nausea, vomiting

Headache, tiredness

Head or neck: tongue, voice box, tonsils, salivary glands, nasal cavity, pharynx (throat)

Sore mouth, hard to swallow or pain with swallowing, change in taste or loss of taste, sore throat, dry mouth, thick saliva

Dry mouth, damage to jaw bone, lockjaw, changes in taste and smell

Chest: lungs, esophagus, breast

Trouble swallowing, heartburn, tiredness, loss of appetite

Narrowing of the esophagus, chest pain with activity, enlarged heart, inflammation of the pericardium (the membrane around the heart), lung scarring or inflammation

Belly (abdomen): large or small intestine, prostate, cervix, uterus, rectum, pancreas

Loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, gas, bloating, trouble with milk products, changes in urination, tiredness

Diarrhea, blood in urine, bladder irritation

Side effects usually start around the second or third week of treatment and peak about two-thirds of the way through treatment. After radiation ends, most side effects last 3 or 4 weeks, but some may last much longer.

If you have eating-related side effects, see the “How to cope with common eating problems” section for tips on how to deal with them.

If you’re having trouble eating and have been following a special eating plan for diabetes or some other chronic health condition, some of these general tips may not work for you. Talk to your cancer care team about how best to change your eating habits while you’re getting radiation.

Tell your cancer care team about any side effects you have so they can prescribe any needed medicines. For example, there are medicines to control nausea and vomiting and to treat diarrhea.

Visit www.cancer.org for more information on radiation therapy and how to manage the side effects of it.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy (chemo) side effects depend on what kind of chemo drugs you take and how you take them. Many of the common side effects of chemo that can cause eating problems are covered in the section called “How to cope with common eating problems.”

Most people get chemo at an outpatient center. It may take anywhere from a few minutes to many hours. Make sure you eat something beforehand. Most people find that a light meal or snack an hour or so before chemo works best. If you’ll be there several hours, plan ahead and bring a small meal or snack in an insulated bag or cooler. Find out if there’s a refrigerator or microwave you can use.

Some side effects of chemo go away within hours of getting treatment. If side effects last longer, tell your cancer care team. There are things that can be done to lessen eating-related side effects. And prompt attention to eating-related side effects can help keep up your weight and energy level and help you feel better.

If you’re having trouble eating and have been following a special eating plan for diabetes or some other chronic health condition, talk to your cancer care team about how best to change your eating habits while getting chemo.

Visit our website, www.cancer.org, for more information on chemo and managing chemo side effects.


Last Medical Review: 07/15/2015
Last Revised: 07/15/2015