Tips on eating when you’re undergoing cancer treatment

Chemotherapy cancer treatment

Source: Pond 5

A common side effect of cancer and cancer treatment is loss of appetite. Even though there are now medications to ease some side effects, for various reasons, it can still be difficult to eat.

Registered dietitian Karen Schilling says, “It’s vitally important to eat well during treatment, even when you don’t feel like it. Not eating enough calories and protein can lead to weight loss, weakness, and fatigue.”

Karen is an oncology dietitian at the Maine Medical Center Cancer Institute. Thanks to a grant from Hannaford Supermarkets, Karen is presenting a monthly nutrition program at the Cancer Community Center in South Portland, Maine.

It’s called Overcoming Obstacles to Eating and sessions will alternate between two topics:

  • Nutrition and Treatment: Explore specific strategies for managing the nutrition challenges while undergoing cancer treatment.
  • Nutrition Basics: Learn nutrition basics and explore what diet is right for you.

The program will be held the fourth Tuesday of every month from 10:30 to noon at the Cancer Community Center, 778 Main Street, South Portland, Maine. (Next session is Tuesday, March 28. The focus will be Nutrition Basics.)

For more information and to register, here’s the link to the online calendar or you can call (207) 774-2200.

I know that not everyone who might benefit from the program (which includes patients and family and caregivers) will be able to attend, so I asked Karen for advice on managing some common side effects of cancer treatments —  nausea and mouth sores.

Tips for managing nausea

  • Follow the recommendations of your doctors for taking anti-nausea medication
  • Start with something solid like toast or crackers
  • Eat smaller amounts more often during the day instead of large meals
  • Sip on water, broth, or diluted juices throughout the day
  • Eat cooler foods that may have a less strong smell
  • Create a restful setting to eat in and sit upright
  • Some people find ginger helpful. Try ginger tea, ginger chews, or ginger ale

What to eat when you have nausea

  • Dry foods like crackers or toast
  • Popsicles or fruit ices
  • Cold sandwiches
  • Soft cooked eggs – boiled or poached
  • White rice or plain pasta
  • Muffins
  • Potatoes
  • Canned fruits

Tips for managing sore mouth or mouth sores

  • Add sauces and gravies to foods
  • Avoid alcohol based mouthwashes
  • Avoid rough or coarse foods
  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Avoid food that is too hot or too cold
  • Avoid spicy foods

What to eat when you have a sore mouth or mouth sores

  • Soups and stews
  • Protein shakes made with yogurt of ice cream
  • Custards and puddings
  • Applesauce
  • Plain pasta with olive oil or butter
  • Meatloaf
  • Macaroni and cheese
  • Yogurt
  • Mashed potatoes and gravy

Cancer Community Center

The Cancer Community Center is a wonderful place that offers a robust array of programs and resources for people with cancer and their families. Every single thing they offer is free, including Overcoming Obstacles to Eating.

Mission Services Director Molly Stewart says, “Lack of good nutrition can impact a cancer patient’s treatment plan and their body’s ability to heal. Knowing this, we have created a program that gives cancer patients, survivors, and caregivers knowledge and skills to help them deal with cancer-related side effects that can make it hard to maintain a healthy diet.”

For a look at all of the services it provides, visit the Cancer Community Center website.

Resource List

If you’re unable to attend the upcoming program and would like more nutrition tips, Karen recommended these resources:

Academy of Dietetics and Nutrition Current information on a wide range of nutrition topics

American Cancer Society Information on specific cancer, treatments, and side effects.

American Institute for Cancer Research Current information on diet, physical activity, and cancer. Good recipes for moving toward a plant-based diet.

Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center Information on herbal supplements and cancer as well as general information on various cancers.

National Cancer Institute In-depth information on cancer diagnosis, treatment, and supportive care.

Oncology Nutrition Dietetic practice group A subgroup of the Academy of Dietetics and Nutrition focusing on oncology. A directory of certified oncology dietitians is available here.

Your Cancer Game Plan This site has recipes and tips for patients undergoing treatment for cancer – inspired by football player Jim Kelly’s experience with head and neck cancer.

If you have a nutrition question that wasn’t addressed in this post, send it to me by email or in the comment box below and I’ll pass it along to Karen and the Cancer Community Center.

Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane was the health reporter on WCSH 6. Before that, a radiation therapist at Maine Medical Center and after, Manager of Marketing/PR at Mercy Hospital. She now hosts and produces the Catching Health podcast and writes the award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.