Cancer and food: What and how to eat during chemotherapy

What foods can ease chemotherapy side effects and help you stay well? Here’s a Live Better With guide to eating well during cancer treatment…

 

When you have been diagnosed with cancer, especially when you are having treatment such as chemotherapy, eating – and eating well – can become a challenge. Chemotherapy can have a dramatic effect on your appetite and digestion but eating well, or as well as you can, is important for your general health and can help you during treatment.

Although chemotherapy can be a life saver, it is not without side effects, many of which are painful and unpleasant and which make it hard to eat well. The particular side effects you might experience depend on the type of cancer you have, the chemotherapy you are receiving, and your general health and fitness levels. We’ve put together a round-up of foods that can help you with specific side effects during chemotherapy, foods that are good for you generally during chemotherapy, and tips from members of the Live Better With Cancer community forum and Facebook group.

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How does chemotherapy affect what you eat – and why?

  • Appetite changes – you may want to eat less, feel full after eating just a small amount, or lose your appetite completely.
  • Nausea and sickness – your GP can prescribe something to help with this but you may still find it hard to eat well.
  • Taste and smell – foods that you once enjoyed can taste bland or leave a metallic taste.
  • Sore mouth and throat – chemotherapy can often cause mucositis: mouth sores, ulcers, swelling and pain, any or all of which can make it difficult to eat.
  • Diarrhoea and constipation – these are common side effects of chemotherapy and many people find they have first one and then the other.

What helps when you’ve lost your appetite during chemotherapy?

Eating small quantities seems to help – better to eat a little and more often than struggle to get through normal sized helpings at mealtimes. Try switching from three main meals a day to up to six small meals, which can include meal replacements, protein powder and energy bars. These can help if you are worried that are not getting all the nutrients or calories that you need. Make your meals as colourful as possible – choose red, yellow and green vegetables and fruit – to stimulate your appetite.

If you are finding it had to swallow, opt for blended soups and smoothies, packed full of vegetables and fruit, as these are a great way of ensuring that you are getting the nutrients you need. They’re easy to swallow and you can have small quantities throughout the day.

What helps with nausea and sickness during chemotherapy?

As well as taking any anti-sickness medication your doctor has prescribed, try one or more of these traditional remedies that could help with nausea and sickness, so that you can enjoy your food again:

  • Ginger  – many community forum and Facebook members swear by ginger. It’s a traditional drug-free way of reducing nausea and sickness. Use it in cooking, have it in sweets and biscuits, drink it as tea or cordial, or try a flat ginger ale or ginger beer. We love the chemo pack put together by a Facebook group member’s thoughtful friend, ‘Ginger wine, ginger biscuits and pieces of crystallised stem ginger along with a mini fan.’
  • Peppermint – you can enjoy this as sweets or tea to ease that queasy feeling.

Find recommended Liver Better With products to help with nausea and sickness here.

What helps with changes in your sense of taste during chemotherapy?

If you can, try new ingredients, flavours and recipes – to discover things that you can enjoy. Herbs, spices and flavoured oils are a safe and natural way to give an extra zing to meals. If you are struggling with a metallic taste, avoid red meat, which can make it worse, and go for meals using plant-based proteins, such as lentils or beans. You can also try:

  • Hard-boiled sweets – sucking one of these before or after a meal can help; try strong mints, sherbet lemon or lemon bonbons. They work by fooling your taste buds!

Or try one of the many suggestions from our community forum and Facebook group members, such as:

  • strong fruit tea
  • curries
  • jelly (especially pineapple) and ice cream, also jelly babies
  • pineapple chunks and mandarin segments kept in the fridge
  • spicy or acidic foods
  • ginger biscuits
  • red grapes

Find recommended Live Better With products that help with changes in taste here.

What helps a dry or sore mouth during chemotherapy?

Do get treatment for sores and ulcers as soon as they appear. This helps you to have a pain-free mouth, so that you can eat comfortably and enjoy your food. Sweet and tart foods, lemonade and orange squash and juice can help with a dry mouth as they stimulate saliva – but acidic food and drinks could make a sore mouth worse, so take care.

Smooth bland foods such as custard, eggs, rice and porridge are gentle on a sore mouth; salty, spicy foods can make a sore mouth worse, as can sharp, crunchy, and crispy foods. Members have plenty of suggestions for food and drinks that have helped them, including:

  • cucumber sandwiches with lots of mayonnaise
  • pineapple and watermelon kept in the fridge
  • frozen grapes
  • jelly
  • fruit cocktail
  • strawberries and other soft fruits
  • nectarines
  • sour foods
  • tomato soup with breadsticks softened in the soup
  • ice lollies and sorbets
  • ice cold blackcurrant squash
  • yogurt

also limes, nectarines and canned mandarin oranges for a dry mouth, although acidic citrus fruits may not be suitable if your mouth is sore.

One Live Better With community member, who eats only ice during chemotherapy sessions and then just has cold drinks for the rest of the day, says that, ‘It has been 100% successful for me and I have had no ulcers or blisters since using ice.’

Find recommended Live Better With products for mouth problems here.

What helps with diarrhoea or constipation during chemotherapy?

Many of our members mention that they have suffered from diarrhoea and then constipation during chemotherapy. It’s vital to keep well hydrated throughout your treatment, especially if you have diarrhoea. Don’t, however, neglect diarrhoea, as it can also be caused by an infection. Do consult your GP as they can prescribe suitable medication.

Keeping up your liquid intake is equally important if you are suffering from constipation and there are plenty of foods that can help – a plant-based diet, with whole grains, vegetables, especially green vegetables, and fruit is ideal.

Our members’ top tips include:

  • dried apricots, prunes , dates and figs (including fig rolls!)
  • oranges and a small glass of warm water with bi-carbonate of soda
  • warm pears in pear juice
  • liquorice
  • hot water as hot as you can manage throughout the day

‘A tablespoon of apple cider vinegar and honey in eight ounces of water nightly has kept me regular.’ Live Better With community member

Find recommended Live Better With digestive and bowel health products here.

Which foods can help generally during chemotherapy?

As far as possible, try to include these foods in your diet:

  • Onions and garlic – if you can eat them, they’re rich in anti-oxidants so a great support for the immune system, which takes a battering during chemotherapy.
  • Lean, protein-rich foods – such as eggs, chicken, salmon and other freshwater fish, and tofu will help boost your energy levels and protect muscle tone. Legumes are protein rich too; try swapping wheat pasta for pea or chickpea pasta.
  • Selenium-rich foods – including Brazil nuts, cooked freshwater fish such as salmon, oats, and brown rice are all full of selenium, a mineral which supports the immune system.
  • Carrots – full of nutrients, and may be helpful to some cancer patients during chemotherapy, according to a 2014 study by the New Zealand Institute for Plant and Food Research

If you are stuck for ideas, take a look at cookbooks that emphasise healthy eating, as these have many quick, simple recipes using ingredients that are very good for you such as oily fish, nuts, fresh fruits and vegetables, and salads.  You’ll find an excellent range in the Live Better With online shop.

Take a look at the Live Better With Guide to Cancer and Eating Well for more information.

 

Browse our Eating Well range →

 

Visit the Live Better With Cancer Community Forum  for information, advice and tips and to share your own questions and recommendations.

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