Combating Cancer Treatment Side Effects with Food

Part of the Cancer Nutrition & Recipes For Dummies Cheat Sheet

Like most people facing cancer, you may worry about having side effects from treatment. Fortunately, treatments for many cancers have become more targeted, lessening the risk and severity of side effects. In addition, many medications are given before or during treatment to prevent side effects. Despite these advances, you may still experience some side effects that can affect your quality of life or make it difficult to maintain your weight and nutritional status. What follows is a short list of the more common side effects of cancer treatment and some foods that you can eat to help combat them.

  • Nausea and vomiting: If you’re going through chemotherapy, nausea and vomiting are common side effects. To combat them, try the following:

    • Protein: Some studies suggest that eating lean protein may help with nausea. Start the day off with some protein at breakfast (eggs are a great option), and then have protein at each meal and snack. Boneless, skinless poultry; fish; beans; and cottage cheese are all good sources of protein for lunch and dinner.

    • Ginger: Some studies suggest that consuming ginger with protein may help with nausea. Try drinking ginger tea with your breakfast, or cook your protein foods with fresh ginger. Even a little natural ginger ale may make a good beverage to complement your meals. The amount of ginger used in studies with ginger supplements can easily be obtained with some food sources. If the ginger from food sources isn’t sufficient to combat your nausea, ask your oncologist whether ginger supplements may be helpful.

    • Bland, low-fat foods: Foods that are bland and low-fat (these are often colorless and have little if any odor) may help prevent nausea when eating. This may be especially important for the meal you eat right before treatment. Cottage cheese, yogurt, and tofu are a few good examples.

  • Sore mouth or throat: Chemotherapy and radiation affect the rapidly dividing cells lining your mouth and throat, which may cause you to experience a sore mouth or throat during cancer treatment. When you develop a sore mouth or throat, eating can become exceedingly uncomfortable. To help reduce the pain and speed healing, try the following:

    • Kefir: When you have a sore mouth or throat, you’ll probably be able to tolerate liquids better than solids. Kefir, a creamy yogurt-like drink made by fermenting both bacteria and yeast in milk, provides protein to help maintain muscle and immune function. The good bacteria in kefir also may help you heal.

    • Honey: Honey may help coat your mouth and throat, reducing pain, and may help you heal faster. Just be sure to brush your teeth with a soft-bristle brush after consuming it to prevent cavities. Take 1 tablespoon three or four times daily during treatment, ideally 15 minutes before treatment, 15 minutes after treatment, and 6 hours after treatment.

    • Frozen fruit and ice chips: Icy things can help numb your mouth and throat to reduce discomfort. Studies have also shown that sucking on ice chips during some chemotherapies (5-FU treatments in particular) may actually help prevent mouth sores. However, very cold foods aren’t a good idea with some chemotherapies, such as oxaliplatin, so talk with your doctor before trying this approach.

  • Taste changes: Cancer treatments can alter how you taste and smell foods, making eating less appealing and sometimes intolerable. Taste changes can take a variety of forms. Some foods may become flavorless, others may taste bitter or metallic, and yet others may taste excessively sweet. If you’re experiencing changes in taste, try the following:

    • Use marinades. Protein foods like meat, chicken, and fish may taste funny during treatment. Using a fruit- or tomato-based marinade may help protein foods taste better.

    • Try liquid meals. Sometimes when food doesn’t taste right, drinking your meals is easier. Try a homemade shake or smoothie, or one of the many commercial meal replacements on the market.

    • Try tomato-based dishes. When food doesn’t taste quite right or doesn’t seem to have enough flavor, people tend to be able to tolerate tomato-based dishes like chili or spaghetti with a whole-grain pasta.

  • Constipation: Many treatments for cancer and its side effects (like opioids for pain) can lead to constipation, as can reduced fiber and fluid intake, a decline in activity, and stress. If you’re constipated, try the following:

    • Prune juice: Prune juice contains a natural laxative. Try drinking 4 ounces of warm prune juice near the time of day that you normally have a bowel movement. If you can’t stomach the taste or appearance of regular prune juice, you can try PlumSmart, which provides the same digestive benefits, but is a clear liquid with a tart-crisp refreshing taste.

    • Ground flax meal or wheat bran: Both are high in fiber. Try sprinkling them on salads, mixing them into yogurt, or baking them in muffins. Start with a very small amount, and increase as tolerated. Be sure to drink plenty of water as you increase your fiber intake, or you could end up more constipated than you were to begin with.

    • Yogurt and kefir: The probiotics (good bacteria) in yogurt and kefir may help keep your digestive system healthy and promote normal bowel movements. Just make sure the label says the product has “live and active cultures.”

  • Diarrhea: Cancer treatment affects all rapidly dividing cells, including those lining the digestive tract, which can lead to diarrhea. When you develop diarrhea, your body may absorb insufficient quantities of nutrients and fluid, which can result in dehydration and malnutrition. If you have diarrhea, try the following to manage it and prevent its complications:

    • Pectin: Pectin is a soluble fiber used for thickening jelly. It may help do the same for your stool. The soluble fiber can absorb liquid and help form your stool. Try adding pectin to cooked cereals or smoothies.

    • Yogurt and kefir: Although you should avoid dairy during bouts of diarrhea, yogurt and kefir are the exception. The probiotics (good bacteria) they contain may help with managing diarrhea during cancer treatment. Although any yogurt or kefir that contains live and active cultures is fine, those containing Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium bifidum may be more effective.

    • High-potassium foods: When you have diarrhea, you lose potassium in your stool. Potassium is critical for your heart and other muscles to function properly. Be sure to consume several servings of high-potassium foods like bananas, potatoes, and cooked carrots to replace what’s lost. Coconut water is another great source of potassium.

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