Dig in—Despite Cancer
How to overcome nutritional challenges during treatment.
It’s a catch-22: Filling up on good-for-you foods can help you fight infection, cope with chemo and radiation side effects, and help your body rebuild healthy tissue. But chemo and radiation can do a number on your appetite, and more. Luckily, the National Cancer Institute says a few easy strategies can help put the pleasure back into pleasing your palate:
Problem: You’ve lost your appetite.
Culprit: Appetite loss can occur for a variety of reasons. Among these are the cancer itself. Nausea, vomiting, taste changes associated with cancer treatment, fatigue, pain, depression and anxiety also can cause appetite loss.
If solid food is unappealing, opt for nutritious beverages such as juice, soup and milk. Liquid or powdered meal-replacement drinks also can help. Try soft, cool items like yogurt, milk shakes and popsicles. Keep portable, healthy snacks like nuts and dried fruit handy. When your appetite permits, opt for casseroles containing pasta, rice and potatoes. Add finely chopped meat, cheese or hard-boiled eggs to soups and sauces for extra calories and protein.
Problem: It’s tough to swallow.
Culprit: Chemo and radiation to your head and neck can damage fast-growing cells, leading to mouth sores and throat inflammation.
Solution: Opt for “soft serve”!
Cook foods such as vegetables until they’re tender. Choose easy-to-swallow foods like scrambled eggs, custard and smoothies. Purée fruit with yogurt or other liquids in a blender or food processor and drink them with a straw to bypass painful tissue. Allow very hot foods to cool to room temperature before eating. Also, avoid crunchy, acidic or spicy foods, including:
- Citrus fruits and juices such as orange, grapefruit and lemon
- Curry, hot sauces, salsa and chili
- Salty foods
- Tomatoes and ketchup
Problem: It’s hard to chew.
Culprit: Chemotherapy and radiation can damage saliva-producing glands, and some medications can cause dry mouth. Without enough saliva, chewing can be difficult.
Solution: Carry these! Tote packs of gum or toss hard candies into your purse or pockets—when water isn’t handy, these treats enhance saliva production to keep your mouth moist. Also, serve dry foods with sauce or gravy.
Problem: Your favorite foods now taste or smell funny.
Culprit: Cancer treatment, or the cancer itself, can make some foods taste bitter or metallic and smell bad.
Solution: Spice it up! Add mild sauces and herbs—like basil, oregano and rosemary—to meat and veggies. Try marinating meat and fish. If meat is still a turn-off, try alternate protein sources such as eggs, dairy foods and beans. As long as your mouth isn’t sore, try tart and sour foods and beverages. Tip: If you have a metallic taste in your mouth, use plastic instead of metal utensils.
Problem: Your bowels are irregular.
Culprit: Chemotherapy and certain medications can cause constipation by slowing the movement of food through your system. Meanwhile, radiation to your abdomen or pelvis may harm healthy cells in your digestive tract and hinder the absorption of nutrients, causing diarrhea.
Solution: Bulk up…or bulk down! If you’re constipated, drink liquids and eat high-fiber foods, such as whole-grain breads and cereal, fruit and legumes (lentils, dried peas and beans). If you have diarrhea, drink plenty of liquid and avoid high-fiber food in favor of high-potassium choices, such as bananas and potatoes.