Cancer and Nutrition

Cancer is becoming an epidemic in our society. Most people have had cancer, know someone who has had cancer, or lost a close friend or relative to cancer. In fact, current statistics from the American Cancer Society indicate that a staggering one out of every two men, and one out of every three women, will experience cancer in his or her lifetime.

One of the biggest problems facing people with cancer is malnutrition. Malnutrition is a serious lack of nutrients directly related to loss of appetite and hydration. Cancer often leads to malnutrition for several reasons. One is due to cancer-related pain, which can decrease anyone's appetite. In addition, chemotherapy can cause changes in your sense of taste, can lead to mouth and throat sores, or just result in fatigue that hinders your intake of food. Radiation can be a deterrent to appetite as well, causing extreme fatigue and sometimes affecting the mouth, stomach or intestine.

Fatigue during cancer treatment can result from a number of causes: not eating, inactivity, low blood counts, depression, poor sleep, and side effects of medication. If you are suffering from fatigue, here are some possible solutions to help ensure proper nutrition.

  • Eat softer foods that require less chewing.
  • Drink high calorie shakes or nutritional supplements (like Ensure, or Boost) to maintain weight status.
  • Add dry milk powder to foods and soups along with gravies, butter or high fat condiments (mayonnaise) to gain extra calories.
  • Have someone make ready-to-eat snacks for the individual when they get the urge to eat.
  • Save some favorite foods that aren’t related to the treatment process to use as back up.
  • If possible, take short 5-7 minute walks to help lessen the fatigue.

A common side effect of chemotherapy is nausea and or vomiting. If this is a major problem for you, you may want to ask your physician for medication to take at night to help relieve some of these symptoms. Here are some helpful hints to help maintain proper nutrition during times of nausea.

  • Limit fluid intake with meals. Drinks fluids either one hour prior to meals or after a meal.
  • Drink and eat slowly.
  • Eat smaller meals, more frequently.
  • Limit intake of hot and spicy foods, or foods that have really strong odors -- the smell can increase nausea.
  • Chew your foods well for easier digestion.
  • Avoid foods that are fatty, greasy or fried; foods that are very sweet such as candy, cookies or cake may increase nausea as well.
  • Drink clear, unsweetened fruit juices. Try to avoid carbonated and caffeinated beverages.
  • If you have nausea in the morning, it may help to keep crackers or dry cereal by your bedside.
  • Suck on mints or tart candies to help alleviate nausea.

Diarrhea is a common side effect of both chemotherapy and radiation therapy. If severe diarrhea persists for more than 24 hours, you should call your physician. However, if mild diarrhea is a problem for you, here are some possible solutions:

  • Get plenty of clear liquid fluids, such as clear broth’s, water, sports drinks (like Gatorade), or ginger ale to prevent dehydration.
  • Drink slowly, and make sure drinks are at room temperature.
  • Eat smaller meals, more frequently throughout the day.
  • Eat foods high in potassium, unless contraindicated by your physician. These foods include bananas, oranges, potatoes, sweet potatoes, peach and apricot nectars.
  • Avoid high fiber foods, which include popcorn, dried fruit, fresh fruit, raw vegetables, whole grain breads and cereals, and beans and nuts.
  • Avoid caffeinated and alcoholic beverages. Stay away from fried, greasy, fatty and highly spiced foods.
  • Avoid milk and milk products, including ice cream, until diarrhea resolves.

If you have any specific needs or questions, contact your physician. In addition, the registered dietitians at the CARITAS Lifestyle Center can help: our number is (502) 995-3500. Another excellent resource is the National Cancer Institute at 1-800-4-CANCER.

This article was written by Shannon Kraft, R.D., and Tonya Rich, R.D.