If you are undergoing chemotherapy, you want to stay as healthy and comfortable as possible during treatment. What you eat during treatment can make a big difference in helping you achieve that goal.
“Chemotherapy and radiation treatments place their own burdens on the nutrition system in addition to the cancer itself,” explains Charlie Pieterick, RN, MS, ARNP, a nurse practitioner with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.
Everyone’s experience during chemotherapy is different, so WebMD offers a variety of nutrition and food tips to help you deal with unpleasant side effects.
Coping With Side Effects of Chemo
- Keep Food Tasty. Chemo can do a number on your taste buds, making certain foods and drinks taste metallic or unpleasant. Water and meat are the two most common items that become distasteful during chemo, says Cara Anselmo, clinical dietitian at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. If it becomes difficult to drink plain water, try drinking flavored mineral water or add sliced lemon to tap water. If certain meats become difficult to enjoy, try other sources of protein such as eggs, low-fat dairy, beans, and fish.
- Fight Constipation. While some people experience diarrhea with chemo, others deal with constipation. Keeping hydrated is important to help prevent constipation. Including all types of fiber in your diet also can be helpful. If you aren’t accustomed to large amounts of fiber, make sure to increase your fiber slowly. Getting some exercise -- even just a 20-minute walk -- can be a powerful intestinal stimulant.
- Manage Weight Gain. Some cancer patients tend to gain weight during treatment, says Jennifer Koorenny, MS, RD, oncology dietitian for Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. She suggests low-fat meals, snacks, and lots of vegetables.
- Improve Your Appetite. Many people undergoing chemo find that their appetites suffer. Since carbohydrates are usually digested well, Erika Connor, RD, clinical dietitian for the Stanford Cancer Center, recommends trying snacks such as hot cereals, toast with peanut butter or other nut butter, or pita bread with hummus. Other foods to consider include yogurt and blended soups.
- Ease Diarrhea. If you are experiencing diarrhea, avoid greasy and fried foods, caffeine, sugary drinks and fruit juices, salad greens, raw produce, and sugar alcohols. Foods that are generally well-tolerated include oatmeal, most fruits without skin, sweet potatoes, and squash.
- Keep a Food and Symptom Diary. Write down what you eat and drink, and record any symptoms you experience daily. This will help you and your health care team identify what you are eating that may be causing nausea, constipation, or diarrhea. This way, medications and other dietary suggestions can be tried before problems escalate.
Staying Comfortable During Chemo
- Relieve Mouth Sores. Some types of chemotherapy can cause mouth sores, also known as oral mucositis. To encourage healing, avoid spicy foods, alcohol, and hot temperature foods. Keep your mouth moist by drinking plenty of fluids throughout the day. Rinsing your mouth with salt water after meals may also be helpful.
- Stay Hydrated. Diarrhea and vomiting combined with low fluid intake can cause dehydration. Signs of dehydration may include a dry or sticky mouth, sunken eyes, low urine output (urine is dark yellow when it is concentrated), and an inability to produce tears. Drinking plenty of water can help you avoid dehydration.
- Control Nausea. Eating cool foods instead of warm foods, chewing on crystallized ginger, or sipping on peppermint or ginger tea can help discourage nausea. It’s also best to avoid greasy or fried foods and foods with strong odors.
- Eat Mini-Meals. Eating smaller sized meals tends to be tolerated better during the chemo process than larger, less frequent meals. Eating smaller, more frequent meals will help with nausea as well.
- Talk to a Dietitian. It may be helpful to meet with a registered dietitian, which is a food and nutrition expert. A dietitian can help you with the specific food and diet issues you are experiencing during cancer treatment.
Staying Healthy During Chemo
- Avoid Alcohol. During chemotherapy, be kind to your liver because it is helping to metabolize all the potential toxins in your bloodstream. According to Anselmo, alcohol can cause undue stress on the liver and make it harder for the liver to process chemo drugs. Alcohol can also make your nausea or other gastrointestinal side effects worsen and may interact with certain drugs that are given in conjunction with chemo.
- Watch Supplements. Dietitians in top cancer treatment centers across the country suggest not taking dietary supplements during chemo. These include vitamins, minerals, herbals, and botanicals. There are potential drug-nutrient interactions that can interfere with the effectiveness of chemotherapy. Talk to your doctor about taking any supplements when you are undergoing chemo.
- Limit Green Tea. Some physicians limit the amount of green and white tea consumed by patients who are undergoing chemo. Anselmo advises her patients to limit tea drinking to one or two mugs a day. Green and white teas are packed with antioxidant phytochemicals and may interfere with the desired effect of chemo.
- Ask Your Doctor About Soy-Based Foods. Before eating soy-based foods, check with your oncologist regarding your specific type of cancer or chemotherapy.