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Nutrition in Cancer Care (PDQ®): Supportive care - Patient Information [NCI] - Effects of Cancer Treatment on Nutrition

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Nutrition therapy can help relieve nutrition problems caused by chemotherapy.

Patients who have side effects from chemotherapy may not be able to eat normally and get all the nutrients they need to restore healthy blood counts between treatments. Nutrition therapy can help relieve these side effects, help patients recover from chemotherapy, prevent delays in treatment, prevent weight loss, and maintain general health. Nutrition therapy may include the following:

  • Nutrition supplement drinks between meals.
  • Enteral nutrition (tube feedings).
  • Changes in the diet, such as eating small meals throughout the day.

Radiation Therapy and Nutrition

Radiation therapy can affect cancer cells and healthy cells in the treatment area.

Radiation therapy can kill cancer cells and healthy cells in the treatment area. The amount of damage depends on the following:

  • The part of the body that is treated.
  • The total dose of radiation and how it is given.

Radiation therapy may affect nutrition.

Radiation therapy to any part of the digestive system often has side effects that cause nutrition problems. Most of the side effects begin a few weeks after radiation therapy begins and go away a few weeks after it is finished. Some side effects can continue for months or years after treatment ends.

The following are some of the more common side effects:

  • For radiation therapy to the head and neck
    • Loss of appetite.
    • Changes in the way food tastes.
    • Pain when swallowing.
    • Dry mouth or thick saliva.
    • Sore mouth and gums.
    • Narrowing of the upper esophagus, which can cause choking, breathing, and swallowing problems.
  • For radiation therapy to the chest
    • Infection of the esophagus.
    • Trouble swallowing.
    • Esophageal reflux (a backward flow of the stomach contents into the esophagus).
  • For radiation therapy to the abdomen or pelvis
    • Diarrhea.
    • Nausea.
    • Vomiting.
    • Inflamed intestines or rectum.
    • A decrease in the amount of nutrients absorbed by the intestines.

Radiation therapy may also cause tiredness, which can lead to a decrease in appetite.

Nutrition therapy can help relieve the nutrition problems caused by radiation therapy.

Nutrition therapy during radiation treatment can help the patient get enough protein and calories to get through treatment, prevent weight loss, help wound and skin healing, and maintain general health. Nutrition therapy may include the following:

  • Nutritional supplement drinks between meals.
  • Enteral nutrition (tube feedings).
  • Changes in the diet, such as eating small meals throughout the day.

Patients who receive high-dose radiation therapy to prepare for a bone marrow transplant may have many nutrition problems and should see a dietitian for nutrition support.

See the Stem Cell Transplant and Nutrition section for more information.

Biologic Therapy and Nutrition

Biologic therapy may affect nutrition.

The side effects of biologic therapy are different for each patient and each type of biologic agent. The following nutrition problems are common:

  • Fever.
  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Tiredness.
  • Weight gain.
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WebMD Public Information from the National Cancer Institute

Last Updated: February 25, 2014
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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