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Survivorship: During and After Treatment

Eating Problems Caused By Your Child's Treatment

Cancer and its treatments often cause changes in a child’s eating habits and desire to eat. Not eating can lead to weight loss, and can cause weakness and fatigue. Managing these problems and helping your child eat as well as they can is an important part of helping them through treatment and staying on track with their normal growth and development. .

Nausea and vomiting

Many  treatments for cancer can cause nausea and vomiting. These symptoms can be very uncomfortable and make is hard for your child to eat and drink. But it is important for your child to get enough fluids and foods to prevent dehydration and keep up their strength. There are medicines that can help control your child’s nausea and vomiting. The specific medicines your child is given will depend on the treatment they are receiving and how they react to it.

Some children still have nausea and vomiting even if they are given medicine to try and control these symptoms. Let your child’s cancer care team know if your child has any nausea and vomiting. The medicines that are being given can be changed.

There are things you can do to help decrease your child’s nausea and vomiting while helping them eat and drink more. And encourage your child to drink small amounts of liquids often so that they don’t get dehydrated.

Mouth sores and pain

Some cancer treatments can cause mouth sores and pain. This can make it hard for your child to eat and drink. If your child has trouble eating and drinking because of mouth or throat soreness, let your cancer care team know as soon as possible.

There are things you can do to make your child more comfortable and make eating easier. For instance, you can offer soft, bland foods and lukewarm or cool foods which can be soothing. And ask your child's cancer care team to recommend a mouth wash. This helps prevent infections and speeds up healing.

Trouble swallowing

Cancer and its treatment can sometimes cause trouble swallowing. This may be the issue if your child coughs and chokes while eating and drinking.  Let your cancer care team know right away if this is an issue for your child.

Your doctor may refer your child to a speech-language pathologist with special training in swallowing. They can teach your child how to swallow easier and decrease coughing and choking while eating and drinking. They can also help you figure out if and when nutrition support is needed.

There are a number of things you can do to help your child if they are having trouble swallowing. It is important to find ways to help them drink enough liquids.

Dry mouth or thick saliva

Radiation therapy to the head and neck areas, some kinds of chemo, and certain other medicines can cause a dry mouth (xerostomia). Some children may also develop thick saliva. Dryness can be mild or severe, and a dry mouth can increase the risk of cavities and mouth infection.

If your child has either of these side effects, there are things you can do to help your child’s mouth feel better. Have them drink plenty of fluids and eat moist foods as much as possible throughout the day. Also get them to brush their teeth and tongue and rinse their mouth often.

Changes in taste and smell

Cancer and its treatment can change your child’s senses of taste and smell. These changes may make foods have less flavor or taste bitter or metallic. Your child may also have a reduced or increased sense of smell or notice that things don’t smell the same. These changes can affect your child’s appetite.

There are many things you can try to help if your child doesn’t want to eat because of changes in how foods taste or smell.

              The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

              Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as editors and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

              Anderson PM, Thomas SM, Sartoski S, et al. Strategies to mitigate chemotherapy and radiation toxicities that affect eating. Nutrients. 2021;13(12):4397. Published 2021 Dec 8. 

              Children’s Oncology Group. The Children’s Oncology Group Family Handbook (2nd ed.) Accessed at
              on March 30, 2022. 

              Last Revised: June 22, 2022

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