How to Make Friends With Food During Chemo

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on September 12, 2017
2 min read

I love food. I love to cook, and I love to eat. Chemo was a big challenge for me on both fronts. Cooking has always been a means of expression for me, and my cooking during chemo certainly expressed what I was feeling -- it was horrible! Eating had lost its luster, too. When I had my bout of mouth sores, I wanted to do just about anything rather than eat. Chewing became excruciating.

There’s plenty of advice out there about cancer nutrition, at WebMD or the American Cancer Society. You can find some terrific recipes at the Cancer Nutrition Consortium, which has enlisted professional chefs to create recipes for cancer patients. And check out cancer cookbooks. There are many available.

Here are some things that worked for me:

Don’t go crazy on junk food.

If the only thing that appeals to you is a Taco Bell burrito, then I guess you should go for it. But remember your body is under a lot of stress and needs good nutrition. At least two meals a day, try to emphasize fruits, veggies, lean meats, and whole grains. Whole grains fight constipation. Really fatty foods can make nausea worse.

Try ginger for nausea.

The meds for treating chemo nausea have really improved, but they won’t save you completely. My Dad used to always keep a stash of candied ginger around, and I started to do the same. If you don’t like that, try ginger tea.

If you can’t face a whole meal, try snacks every couple of hours.

When I struggled with mouth sores, I couldn’t make it through a big meal, so instead, I ate small bits, all day long. I became like a Hobbit: first breakfast, second breakfast, elevensies, and so on. I found it to be less stressful to eat a little bit at a time.

Go for the soft stuff.

Now is not the time to worry so much about carbs. Macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, custard, and pudding were my go-to foods during chemo.

Add gravy and juice!

For a while, I struggled with dry mouth. The inside of my mouth felt like sandpaper. I’ve always been a fan of sauces, so I indulged in this: Mashed potatoes and gravy; biscuits and gravy, open face turkey sandwiches with gravy. Juice also helped moisten my mouth, but I usually diluted it because tons of juice means tons of sugar.

Eat what you like.

You have enough on your plate. Eat what tastes good to you. For one friend, only salt and vinegar potato chips tasted good to them while they were going through chemo. Sure, it would have been better for them to eat whole grains and all that, but do what you need to do just to get through it. Some food, any food, is better than no food at all.