Understanding Radiation Therapy

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Eating problems

Radiation to the head and neck or parts of the digestive system (like the stomach or intestines) may cause eating and digestion problems. You may lose interest in food during your treatment. But even if you are not hungry, try to eat protein and some high-calorie foods. Doctors have found that patients who eat well can better handle their cancer treatments and side effects.

Coping with short-term diet problems may be easier than you expect. There are a number of guides and recipe booklets for people who need help with eating problems. You can get a copy of our free booklet called Nutrition for the Person With Cancer During Treatment: A Guide for Patients and Families by calling our toll-free number, or you can read it online at www.cancer.org.

The list below suggests things you can do when you don’t feel like eating, and how to make the most of it when you do feel like eating.

  • Eat when you’re hungry, even if it’s not mealtime.
  • Eat 5 or 6 small meals during the day rather than 2 or 3 large ones.
  • Vary your diet, and try new recipes.
  • If you enjoy company while eating, try to eat with family or friends, or turn on the radio or television.
  • Keep healthy snacks close by for nibbling when you get the urge.
  • If other people offer to cook for you, let them. Don’t be shy about telling them what you would like to eat.
  • If you live alone, you might want to arrange for a program like Meals on Wheels to bring food to you. Ask your doctor, nurse, or local American Cancer Society office about programs in your area.
  • If you drink alcohol, ask your doctor if you can do so during treatment. Find out if alcohol will interact with any medicines you are taking.

If you’re able to eat only small amounts of food, you can increase the calories per serving by trying the following:

  • Add butter or olive oil.
  • Mix canned cream soups with milk or half-and-half rather than water.
  • Drink milk shakes, instant breakfast mixes, or liquid supplements (in cans or bottles) between meals.
  • Add cream sauce or melted cheese to your favorite vegetables.

Some people find they can handle large amounts of liquids even when they don’t feel like eating solid foods. If this is the case for you, try to get the most from each glassful by making drinks enriched with powdered milk, yogurt, juice, or liquid nutrition drinks.

Talk to your health care team if you have any eating problems. They can help you find ways to feel better and get the nutrients your body needs.


Last Medical Review: 01/24/2013
Last Revised: 01/24/2013