Carolyn McAnlis, Dietitian and Pink Hope Ambassador discusses nutrition during chemotherapy.
Undergoing chemotherapy and radiation for cancer treatment is undeniably hard on the body, but by taking care of your body as best as possible during treatment, there are ways to make it a little bit easier. By eating foods that provide maximum nutritional benefits, and making different choices at meal times, it’s possible to avoid some side effects or reduce symptoms.
Before making any changes to your diet, be sure to check with your doctor if any foods interact with your specific treatment so they can be avoided.
The best thing for your body is to be at a healthy weight. Obesity has not only been linked to a higher risk of many types of cancer, it also raises the risk of cancer returning and worsens survival rates. In fact, a study from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore found that for every 11 pounds gained, the risk of dying after breast cancer diagnosis increases by 14%.
While undergoing treatment, it’s important is to provide your body with enough calories and protein to heal from the damage that chemotherapy and radiation causes. Unfortunately, many treatments can cause side effects that greatly affect eating and nutrition, like mouth sores, loss of appetite, sore throat, nausea, and altered taste buds. These side effects can make it harder to get enough calories. Try eating smaller, more frequent meals if appetite loss is a problem. Avoid alcohol, spicy foods, and caffeine, which can aggravate sores. Instead of hot liquids, try smoothies if you have a sore throat.
Natural remedies for nausea like ginger or peppermint tea (at room temperature or cold) may be helpful to improve appetite.
If side effects are making it difficult to eat, the goal is to prevent any weight loss or muscle wasting. This is a scenario where I would recommend supplementation – a cooling smoothie or milkshake with added protein may help, or there are some products available like Ensure, which are shakes that are specifically focused for people who are not getting enough nutrition through food.
Chemotherapy can also affect taste buds so that some foods taste metallic or unpleasant. Experiment to improve the taste – instead of plain water, add slices of fruit or a small amount of fruit juice. If red meat tastes unpleasant, try different types of protein like eggs or fish. Many patients find that it’s difficult to deal with the smells of preparing and cooking meals; this is where you need to recruit a family member to help!
If you are able to eat enough, it’s important to focus on what exactly you are fuelling your body with. According to the American Cancer Society, “Many of the drugs used to treat cancer are broken down by the liver, and alcohol, by causing liver inflammation, could impair drug breakdown, increasing side effects. It’s a good idea to drink only a little, if any alcohol during treatment to prevent interactions with the drugs used to treat cancer.” Try to reduce alcohol as much as possible, especially if your doctor recommends abstaining.
It’s also important to eat healthy so that you can help your body fight the disease. Aim to increase fruit and vegetable intake, and reduce the consumption of processed foods like smoked or cured meats and high sugar items.
Laraine Gadd, Pink Hope Ambassador and breast cancer survivor, said, “I soon realised that what I put into my body affected the response of the chemotherapy so I adjusted my diet to allow my body to best cope with the treatment and lessen the side effects.” The biggest thing to remember is – whatever makes you feel good, keep doing it! Side effects from chemotherapy can vary from person to person, especially with different treatments. One great way to keep track of this is to keep a food and symptom journal. If you experience side effects, write down what you ate to see if there are patterns and these foods can be avoided in the future, ideally lessening the side effects.
Keep hydrated! Dehydration can cause symptoms like fatigue, light-headedness, and dry mouth. Maintaining hydration can prevent constipation, and it’s especially important to replenish fluids if you are experiencing vomiting or diarrhoea.
So far, studies haven’t shown a strong indication for taking vitamin or mineral supplements during cancer treatment, so these aren’t necessary unless you are deficient or your doctor recommends it.
A note on food preparation: chemotherapy often weakens the immune system, which means there may be a higher risk for contracting food-borne illnesses. Make sure fruits and vegetables are washed well and food is cooked to the proper temperature. Cancer Council Queensland recommends avoiding high-risk foods like soft cheeses, raw seafood, deli meats, and unpasteurized dairy products.
As long as your doctor approves it, physical activity is encouraged during treatment. It can help improve fatigue, anxiety, and stimulate appetite. You may need to exercise at a lower intensity during treatment; take long walks, for example, instead of running. Those who have a low white cell count (suppressed immune system) should avoid public gyms in order to avoid the potential exposure to germs. The chlorine in swimming pools may also irritate radiated skin. If you were not active before your diagnosis, start slowly and increase your exercise according to your comfort level, and always get approval from your doctor first.
Eating well is a way for you to have an active participation in your own treatment. Laraine feels that eating healthy and exercising, “is something we can all do, something we can control and I promise it will make you feel better and help your body cope with cancer, cancer treatment, and surgery.”
Breast Cancer Network Australia (read more about exercise): http://www.bcna.org.au/sites/default/files/bcna_exercise_and_breast_cancer_booklet_0.pdf
American Cancer Society: Nutrition and Physical Activity During and After Cancer Treatment: http://www.cancer.org/treatment/survivorshipduringandaftertreatment/nutritionforpeoplewithcancer/nutrition-and-physical-activity-during-and-after-cancer-treatment-answers-to-common-questions
Cancer Council QLD: