Coping with Cancer Treatment Side Effects

Cancer diagnosis and treatment is a difficult process that is challenging in a number of ways. As part of treatment, an individual may experience a wide variety of side effects including poor appetite, nausea, dry mouth, changes with taste, diarrhea, and mouth sores.  Severity of these symptoms can differ and, in most cases, individuals have to learn to manage more than one symptom at a time.  Adequate nutrition is important for anyone undergoing treatment for cancer. Learning some simple methods to help navigate these side effects can be helpful.

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Identifying Symptoms

Depending on the prescribed treatment plan, individuals may respond differently and experience a range of symptoms. Identifying, treating, and managing symptoms should be a goal for the patient and their care team. Experts recognize several nutrition benefits to staying on top of symptom management with cancer treatment.  They include maintaining a healthier nutrition status, improving quality of life, and a better overall response to treatment. Without adequate nutrition intake, particularly if symptoms aren’t well managed, an individual may become tired, weak, and struggle with fighting cancer.

Nutrition Concerns and Recommendations

Working with a registered dietitian during treatment is important. They can offer different ideas for symptom management with your diet and help you to better understand necessary goals for calories, protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals.  Consider the following diet suggestions when dealing with different cancer treatment side effects to help ensure you are reaching these goals.

Poor Appetite. A limited appetite, especially long-term, can lead to poor oral intake and not give your body the nutrition it needs to help battle cancer.

  • Try for 4 to 6 small, nutrient-dense meals.
  • Sip on liquids between meals to prevent filling up too quickly at meals.
  • Find the time of day when food is more appealing and make sure to eat at that time.

Nausea. Left untreated, nausea can make food prep and eating extremely difficult.

  • Pick bland foods over items that are spicy, high in fat, or greasy.
  • Avoid strong-smelling foods, especially when cooking.
  • Munch on crackers with medications to keep the stomach from getting too empty.

Dry Mouth. Saliva helps to moisten food as you eat. Without this liquid, chewing and swallowing can be more difficult.

  • Alternate between liquids and solids at meals for extra moisture.
  • Add liquids when cooking for more moist meals. (Think crockpot cooking instead of grilling!)
  • Keep up with fluids. Drink sips of water all day.

Taste Changes. Eating can be more of challenge when favorite foods taste metallic or “off.”

  • If foods have limited flavor, choose fruity or salty flavors. Try marinades, herbs and spices for flavor.
  • If foods have a bitter or metallic flavor, choose sweet and sour food and beverages. Replace metal silverware with wood or plastic utensils.
  • If foods have a salty flavor, try low-sodium options or boil foods before eating.

Diarrhea. Loose stools can be triggered by treatment and make it difficult to tolerate what you eat.

  • Stay hydrated with at least 8 to 10 cups of water or clear liquids. Fluids with electrolytes may also be needed.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, or foods with sugar alcohol that may worsen diarrhea.
  • Try bland foods that contain soluble fiber.

Mouth Sores. Controlling mouth pain can allow you to eat better and maintain hydration.

  • Try soft food items that are cold or room temperature.
  • Add liquids to any dry foods for better tolerance.
  • Limit intake of acidic or spicy foods.

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms or other side effects during your cancer treatment, talk with your medical team.  Management with diet and medications is an important part of your care.

Stacey Phillips, MS, RD is a clinical dietitian working with general medicine, oncology, CKD, renal transplant recipients and living kidney donor patients. Outside of her work, Stacey is passionate about improving the resources available to individuals with chronic kidney disease and actively participates on several renal dietitian committees.

Stacey Phillips, MS, RD is a clinical dietitian working with general medicine, oncology, CKD, renal transplant recipients and living kidney donor patients. Outside of her work, Stacey is passionate about improving the resources available to individuals with chronic kidney disease and actively participates on several renal dietitian committees.

If you have more questions about your diet, it’s always a great idea to speak with a registered dietitian. Registered dietitians are the only credentialed experts qualified to address your unique health questions. Click here to request a direct consultation with a dietitian today!


References:
American Cancer Society. Benefits of Good Nutrition During Cancer Treatment. Available at: https://www.cancer.org/treatment/survivorship-during-and-after-treatment/coping/nutrition/benefits.html. Accessed May 23, 2022.
American Cancer Society. Drinking and Eating Changes. Available at: https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects/eating-problems.html. Accessed May 22, 2022.
Levin R. Managing Nutrition Impact Symptoms of Cancer Treatment. In: Oncology Nutrition for Clinical Practice. 2nd edition. United States: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics; 2021:194-217.
National Cancer Institute. Nutrition in Cancer Care-Patient Version. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/side-effects/appetite-loss/nutrition-pdq#:~:text=Stem%20cell%20transplant.-,Cancer%20and%20cancer%20treatments%20may%20cause%20malnutrition.,a%20lack%20of%20key%20nutrients. Accessed May 23, 2022.

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