Chemotherapy can help treat cancer, but it can also have many side effects. It is very common to have problems eating. Here are some tips to eat healthy during treatment.
How Chemotherapy Affects Eating
Chemotherapy targets and destroys rapidly dividing cancer cells. But other cells divide quickly too, such as the ones that line the digestive tract. This can make it hard for a person to eat when they are being treated. Some problems may be:
- Lack of hunger
- Changes in taste and smell
- Mouth pain, swelling, and sores
- Nausea and vomiting
A person with cancer needs to eat well to recover. Getting enough calories and nutrients can help:
- Improve how a person feels
- Maintain strength, energy, and weight
- Ease side effects
- Lower the risk of infection
Tips for Eating
It can be hard for a person to eat when they are being treated. They will need to eat smaller meals more often. Choosing foods that are easy to eat can help. Do not eat fatty, greasy, or spicy foods that are harder to digest. Plenty of water will also be needed.
Increasing calories is also important. This is a good time to ignore the rules about what to eat and when. Now is a good time to try new foods or one that may not have been liked in the past. Something that may not have been liked before may now be pure heaven.
Dealing With Lack of Hunger
Most medicines cause lack of hunger. This can range from mild to severe. It can also lead to nutrition problems. It will not last long. A person with cancer should feel hungry again when treatment is done. Try these tips until then:
- Eat high-protein, high-calorie foods.
Add extra calories and protein to meals with:
- Milk powder
- Protein powder
- Peanut butter
- Honey, jam, and sugar
- Cheese and cream cheese
- Use liquid supplements that have extra nutrients.
- Drink shakes, smoothies, milk, and soup if solid foods are a problem.
Eat soft foods that are easy to chew and swallow, such as:
- Soft fruits—bananas, applesauce, watermelon, peaches, and pears
- Cottage cheese
- Mashed potatoes
- Macaroni and cheese
- Custards and puddings
- Scrambled eggs
- Oatmeal or other cooked cereals
Eat snacks that are rich in protein and calories, such as:
- Avocado spread on toast or crackers
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Full-fat yogurt
- Try to get a lot of calories at breakfast. It may be the easiest time of the day to eat.
Easing Nausea and Vomiting
Nausea and vomiting are common problems during treatment. Medicines can help. They can be used before symptoms happen.
To manage this side effect:
- Eat before treatment.
- Eat dry, bland foods like crackers, toast, or breadsticks during the day.
- Sit up or lie down with the upper body raised for 1 hour after eating.
- Do not eat in a room where food was prepared. The odor may be too strong.
- Do not eat in a room that is too warm.
- Rinse the mouth before and after eating.
- Suck on hard candies to get rid of any bad taste left in the mouth after eating.
A dietitian can help a person plan meals that have enough calories and still ease nausea and vomiting.
Lower the Risk of Foodborne Illness
Cancer treatment weakens the immune system. Take these steps to lower the risk of foodborne illnesses:
- Wash all fruits and veggies, even if the skin will be peeled.
- Wash your hands and food surfaces before and after making food.
- Thaw meat in the fridge, not on the kitchen counter.
- Cook meat and eggs well.
- Do not eat raw shellfish or sushi.
- Use only pasteurized or processed ciders and juices and pasteurized milk and cheese.
Doctors and dietitians are there to help a person with cancer put these and other tips into practice. It is possible to eat healthy during treatment.
American Cancer Society
National Cancer Institute
Canadian Cancer Society
Cancer Care Ontario
Chemotherapy and diet. Eat Right—American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website. Available at: https://www.eatright.org/health/diseases-and-conditions/cancer/chemotherapy-and-diet. Accessed August 26, 2020.
Hesketh PJ. Chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. N Engl J Med. 2008 Jun 5;358(23):2482-2494.
Nutrition for people with cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at: https://www.cancer.org/treatment/survivorship-during-and-after-treatment/staying-active/nutrition.html. Accessed August 26, 2020.
Nutrition in cancer care (PDQ). National Cancer Institute website. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/side-effects/appetite-loss/nutrition-pdq. Accessed August 26, 2020.
Toxicities of chemotherapeutic agents. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:https://www.dynamed.com/drug-review/toxicities-of-chemotherapeutic-agents. Accessed August 26, 2020.
Last reviewed March 2020 by EBSCO Medical Review BoardDianne Scheinberg Rishikof MS, RD, LDN Last Updated: 2/3/2021