Eating during Cancer Treatment
Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on May 1, 2023.
Your meal plan during cancer treatment should have enough calories and protein to help you heal and maintain your weight. During cancer treatment, you may need to try new foods and drinks. Ask your healthcare provider about the best meal plan for you during cancer treatment.
Call your doctor or oncologist if:
- You vomit for more than 3 days in a row.
- You cannot swallow food at all.
- You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.
Nutrition changes you may need to make during cancer treatment:
Your healthcare provider may want to check your weight often. You may need to eat high-calorie foods if you are losing weight.
- Eat small meals or snacks every few hours instead of large meals. Plan to eat as much as you can during the time of day when your appetite is best. Keep favorite foods on hand.
- Ask your healthcare provider if you should add extra calories to your foods. You can do this by adding foods such as butter, cheese, or sour cream to main dishes, sandwiches, and salads. Add honey, jam, sugar, granola, and dried fruits to desserts. To add extra protein, add dairy products, such as milk, ice cream, or yogurt. You can also add instant breakfast powder, eggs, nuts, peanut butter, meat or beans for extra protein.
- Nutrition supplements may help you get the extra nutrients you need if you cannot eat enough food. Nutrition supplements provide extra calories, protein, vitamins, and minerals. Do not take vitamins or other supplements unless your healthcare provider says it is okay.
- Drink only small amounts of liquids with meals, or drink liquids between meals. Liquids can make you feel full.
Manage nausea or vomiting:
- Eat small meals every few hours instead of large meals. Choose dry or bland foods. Examples include toast, crackers, pretzels, yogurt, cream of wheat, boiled potatoes, rice, and noodles. Foods that are cold or at room temperature may be easier to eat than hot foods.
- Fatty, greasy, spicy, high-fiber, and gas-producing foods may make nausea worse. High-fiber foods include fresh fruits and vegetables, whole-grain cereals and breads, and beans. Gas-producing foods include cabbage, broccoli, and dried cooked beans. Drinks that contain alcohol may also cause nausea.
- Avoid foods that have strong odors. If possible, let someone else prepare meals. Try to avoid being around the smell of food until it is time to eat.
- Do not lie down right after you eat. If you need to lie down, use several pillows to keep your head high. Your healthcare provider may be able to order medicines to decrease or prevent nausea.
- Drink more liquids to replace fluids lost during vomiting. Drink sips of clear liquids such as water, sports drinks, water, apple juice, and broth.
- Drink caffeine-free liquids to prevent dehydration. Good liquids to drink are water, diluted juices, broth, and caffeine-free tea or coffee.
- Eat 5 or 6 small meals each day instead of large meals. Include foods that are low in fiber, such as mashed potatoes, yogurt, noodles, applesauce, toast, cottage cheese, rice, eggs, and cream of wheat.
- The sugar in milk products (lactose) can cause some people to have more bowel movements. If you have problems with lactose, try drinking milk that has the lactase enzyme added to it. The lactase enzyme helps your body digest the lactose found in milk products. You may also choose to switch to lactose-free milk for a period of time.
- Increase the amount of liquid you drink. Ask your healthcare provider how much liquid to drink each day. Drink a hot liquid about ½ hour before the usual time that you have a bowel movement.
- Ask your healthcare provider if you may increase the amount of fiber in your diet. Extra fiber may help you to have more bowel movements. Some high-fiber foods include bran cereal, raw fruits and vegetables, cooked dried beans, and whole-grain breads. Prune juice and prunes may be especially helpful. Talk with your healthcare provider about using a fiber supplement or laxative.
- If you are able, increase the amount of physical activity that you do every day. Walking, swimming, and biking are exercises that may decrease problems with constipation.
Manage thick saliva or a dry mouth:
- Eat soft, moist foods. Moisten dry foods with sauces, gravies, and salad dressings. These foods can also help to lubricate your mouth and make it easier to chew and swallow foods. Take a sip of liquid with every mouthful of food to help you chew and swallow the food.
- If you are able, eat citrus fruits such as oranges, lemons, or grapefruits to make more saliva. Do not eat citrus fruits if you have mouth sores. Citrus can sting when it hits the sores.
- Rinse your mouth throughout the day with club soda or baking soda mixed with water. Do not use mouthwash that contains alcohol. The alcohol may burn mouth sores and dry your mouth. Your healthcare provider can recommend a mouth rinse to help clean your mouth and keep it moist.
- Drink caffeine-free liquids throughout the day to decrease mouth dryness.
- Suck on hard candy or chew sugar-free gum to help make more saliva if you have a dry mouth. Do not have salty foods, drinks that contain alcohol, or mouthwash, because they can dry your mouth.
Manage trouble swallowing:
You may need a swallow test to find out what kinds of foods and liquids are best for you. Eat small meals that are high in calories and protein every few hours. Eat moist foods, or make dry foods moist with gravies, sauces, and dressings. Ask your healthcare provider what consistency your foods should have.
Manage a sore mouth, tongue, or throat:
- Eat foods that are soft, moist, and blenderized (foods thinned in a blender). These are easy to chew and swallow. Use liquids to moisten dry foods. Drink plenty of liquids.
- Do not have foods and drinks that can increase mouth and throat pain. Examples are foods and drinks that are spicy, salty, acidic, very hot, or very cold. Acidic foods include tomatoes, oranges, and other citrus fruits. Do not eat foods that are crisp or tough. If you take a vitamin or mineral supplement, ask if you can crush it and add it to a food.
Manage taste or smell changes:
- Try different flavors, such as tart, salty, or sweet to find foods that you like. Try adding seasonings and flavorings to make foods taste better.
- If meats taste like metal or are bitter, try serving them cold or at room temperature. Add meat to casseroles or marinate meats in pineapple juice, wine, or other liquids before cooking to improve the taste. If you cannot eat meat, choose other foods that have protein in them. Some examples are cheese, milk, pudding, yogurt, shakes, eggs, nuts, and tofu. Eat with plastic utensils to decrease the taste of metal in your mouth.
- Foods that are cold or at room temperature may taste better than hot foods. Make foods less salty or less sweet if these flavors taste bad.
- Brush your teeth and rinse your mouth often between meals to help decrease the bad taste in your mouth. Rinse your mouth with baking soda mixed in water.
Guidelines for healthy eating:
You may have a hard time fighting infections. It is important to try to prevent infections and food poisoning.
- To prevent food poisoning, wash all raw fruits and vegetables very well. Scrub the surface of melons before you cut them. Thaw meat in the refrigerator instead of on the counter. Cook meats and eggs very well. Do not eat raw shellfish. Juice, milk, and cheese must be pasteurized to be safe.
- Wash your hands before and after you prepare foods, especially after you handle raw meat. Wash your hands before you eat.
- Wash all surfaces where food was prepared, such as the countertop and cutting boards.
- Cooking food takes effort and can use up your energy. Buy foods that need little or no work to prepare. Keep many kinds of food on hand, and try new things often. Packaged puddings, cheese sticks, peanut butter and cracker packs, frozen entrees, and high-calorie nutrition supplements are some examples.
- Ask family and friends to help you shop for food and keep a good supply of things you like at home. Ask others to help you make batches of food and freeze extra for later.
Follow up with your doctor or oncologist as directed:
Write down your questions so you remember to ask them during your visits.
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The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.
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