Getting good nutrition can be difficult when you have cancer, both because of the disease and side effects of the treatment. There are some things you can do to overcome this obstacle to your healing.
Cancer can make good nutrition more difficult
Patients with head and neck cancer often have malnutrition before they start treatment. This is due to pain and trouble swallowing, swelling, and bleeding. Often a patient needs to consider a feeding tube as a temporary way of receiving the nutrients they need during their treatment. Eating softer foods is important when you have cancer of the head and neck.
The pancreas makes an enzyme which helps break down fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. This enzyme aids digestion and helps to neutralize stomach acid as it enters the small intestine. If the pancreas isn’t working properly, there can be a shortage of these enzymes. This often means the body doesn’t get enough fat and fat-soluble vitamins from the food you digest. Proteins may not be completely digested, leading to the formation of toxins or allergies. Your pancreas also might not break down carbohydrates, leading to diarrhea and other problems with your digestive system as a result of a malfunctioning pancreas.
There are so many reasons why it can be difficult for patients with gastric cancers to get good nutrition. Patients may experience loss of appetite, both from treatment and cancer itself. The stomach may not empty properly. This can cause the patient to feel full longer.
Cancer treatment can make good nutrition difficult
Surgeries and radiation can make eating and digestion painful. Chemotherapy and radiation can cause severe nausea and vomiting. Mouth sores can also make eating a painful experience. Ask your doctor for advice on ways to ease discomfort and nausea.
Chemotherapy affects rapidly dividing cells like the cells that line your mouth, throat, stomach, and digestive tract. This can quickly affect your ability to get good nutrition by changing the way things taste and your appetite.
The time and duration of your chemotherapy can affect the severity of your appetite loss. Your appetite will most likely return to normal within 2-6 weeks of ending chemotherapy. Even if you don’t feel like eating, it’s important to try to get the good nutrition you need to fight infection and repair tissue damaged by cancer and its treatment. Getting good nutrition also helps fight fatigue and weakness
See a Nutritionist
Ask if your cancer center has a nutritionist on staff, or can refer you to a nutritionist who specialized in oncology nutrition. Oncology patients have special nutrition needs as well as oncology-related issues that can interfere with meeting those needs. They might be able to prescribe extra vitamins or supplements. There are also prescription medications that can help with appetite problems. If thing don’t improve and you begin to lose too much weight, your doctor can help you decide if temporary tube feeding or getting extra nutrients via IV is a good idea.
When Dan was first diagnosed, he saw a nutritionist who was able to give us some great advice about what he should be eating and how to make meeting his nutritional needs easier. She knew the issues that could crop up and make doing this harder. She gave us some easy recipes for shakes and smoothies that made getting the right kind of protein possible, even if Dan wasn’t up to eating solids.
Other Tips for getting Good Nutrition
Most cancer patients have higher energy and protein needs. Meal replacement beverages can help supplement those needs. Ensure with Revigor is one example of these. You can make some great tasting shakes at home in your blender and even add protein powder to give them an extra boost.
Along with smoothies, try making Popsicles from blended fruits. This can help increase your caloric and nutritional intake while soothing an inflamed mouth or throat.
Watch the spices! You may need to eliminate certain spices that bother your system. On the other hand, if irritation isn’t a problem, adding new and interesting flavors and spices to your food might be just the thing to entice your palate.
Chemotherapy often changes the taste of your foods. Sometimes the food you eat tastes metallic. Reduce this effect by eating with plasticware rather than metal utensils. Cooking in glass or enamelware can also help.
Choose foods that are high in calories and protein, as well. Stir some protein powder into your ice cream or pudding. Every little bit helps.
Eat what you can, when you can.
When Dan started having trouble with his appetite, we went to the store and walked down all of the aisles. When he saw something that looked appetizing we tossed it in the cart. He keeps his snacks nearby so when he’s ready to nibble, they are there. He ate frequent, smaller meals rather than 3 large meals every day. He found it easier to eat more in the morning, so that became the main meal of his day rather than dinner when he found it hardest to eat.
If you find it hard to eat solids, don’t waste your fluids on non-caloric ones. You are doing the opposite of dieting. Instead, drink fruit juices, milk, and other beverages that have calories and nutrients. It may not be the optimal way to get calories and nutrients, but at this point, you just do the best you can.
If sitting down at the dinner table feels overwhelming, take your mind off of it and eat while watching your favorite show. People are often told that it’s not a good idea to eat in front of the TV because they will eat more than they realize, without meaning to. Again, you are doing the opposite of dieting. This is your chance to break all of the rules.
If you are finding that you never feel hungry, eat on a set schedule. Every couple of hours eat a small meal. It might just be a banana or a half a sandwich, or maybe a scoop of ice cream. These small meals will give you nutrition and maybe even some good nutrition to pull you through and fuel your body.
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In 2012 doctors diagnosed my husband, Dan, with stage IV lung cancer. Since then, our family has been learning what it means to face cancer. I’ve focused my writing and speaking on helping cancer patients and their families advocate for themselves and live life to the fullest, in spite of their illness. My goal is to help people face cancer with grace.
My book Facing Cancer as a Friend: How to Support Someone Who Has Cancer, is available on Amazon.com
I also blog at Heather Erickson Author/Writer/Speaker