For individuals with cancer, it’s extremely important to maintain proper nutrition before, during and after cancer treatment. Eating the right foods—and the right amount of food—is essential for healing, fighting infection, having enough energy and building strength.
No one really knows what, if any, side effects they’ll experience during their treatment, just as no one can predict how their cancer will change their eating patterns, or whether eating problems will result after their treatment ends. For this reason, eating a nutrient-rich diet and maintaining the same weight before treatment even starts can help you to stay strong, feel better, lower your risk of infection, better cope with side effects that may (or may not) occur, and heal and recover faster.
For most people, a healthy diet consists of consuming plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains; eating a moderate amount of meat and dairy; and avoiding too much fat, sugar, salt and alcohol. However, this may not necessarily apply to individuals who are undergoing treatment for cancer.
That’s because both the disease itself and treatment can alter how your body tolerates different foods and uses certain nutrients. The National Cancer Institute explains that some tumors change how the body uses certain nutrients. The body's use of protein, carbohydrates and fat may be affected, especially by tumors of the stomach, intestines or head and neck. While a patient may seem to be eating enough, the body may not be able to absorb all the nutrients from food.
One’s diet may have to change in order to get the nutrients needed to stay healthy. For example, someone with cancer may have swelling inside their mouth and throat that can lead to painful mouth sores—so they might need soft, high-calorie, high-fat options like smoothies and cream-based soups to build their strength and maintain their weight.
In fact, eating difficulties are not uncommon among patients with cancer. Treatments like chemotherapy, radiation or surgery can interfere with one’s ability to chew or swallow food. Problems swallowing (dysphagia) can include choking or coughing while eating, the inability to swallow, pain while swallowing or a feeling that food is stuck in the throat. Issues can range from mild to severe and may be caused by the disease itself—especially mouth, throat or esophageal cancers—which may cause the passages to tighten or narrow.
Appetite loss or poor appetite are common side effects from cancer and treatment. Ongoing appetite loss can have serious repercussions—from weight loss to malnutrition. Malnutrition, a condition caused by a lack of key nutrients, can cause weakness, fatigue and an inability to fight infection or finish cancer treatment. Malnutrition may worsen if one’s cancer grows or spreads.
Anorexia and cachexia are common causes of malnutrition in cancer patients. Anorexia—the loss of appetite or desire to eat—is the most common cause. It may occur early in the disease or later if the cancer grows or spreads. Cachexia, also called wasting syndrome, goes beyond only loss of appetite. It involves changes in the way the body uses proteins, carbohydrates and fat. People with cachexia lose muscle and often fat as well.
Once treatment has ended, many cancer survivors ask themselves the question—now what? For the first time in what has probably been a long time, survivors can again take charge of their health.
It’s important to recognize that patients may need to lose weight or regain weight and put on lean muscle mass that was lost during treatment. For the most part, however, a healthy diet for cancer survivorship largely resembles that of a preventative diet. Healthy eating is essential for:
- Recovery and healing
- Regaining strength and energy
- Managing ongoing side effects
- Reducing risk of a future cancer diagnosis
- Maintaining a healthy weight
At Mom’s Meals, we understand how vital it is for individuals with cancer to get the right nutrition before, during and after treatment. We offer a cancer support menu and a pureed menu to address the nutritional needs of patients during this challenging time. Every meal has been developed with input from registered dietitians specializing in oncology and in accordance with guidelines from the American Institute for Cancer Research.