Eating well when you have cancer means eating enough to prevent weight loss and keep your strength up. Cancer and cancer treatments can make it harder for your body to get what it needs from the food you eat. And your body needs good nutrition to prevent infection and heal quickly. You may feel better and have more energy if you eat the right kinds of food before, during, and after your treatment.
You may find it hard to eat during treatment for cancer because:
- You may have problems with side effects of treatment, such as nausea, vomiting, or mouth sores.
- You may have a dry mouth or trouble swallowing after radiation treatments.
- Foods may taste different.
- You may not feel like eating if you are uncomfortable, tired, depressed, or anxious.
Some people continue to enjoy food throughout most of their cancer treatment. Others may have days when they don't feel like eating at all. Even the thought of food may make them feel sick. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Eat food that has protein and extra calories to help you keep your strength and prevent weight loss. Try a liquid meal replacement for extra calories and protein. Milk shakes are good choices.
- Your appetite may be better early in the day. Try having your main meal of the day early. Or you may find it easier to eat smaller meals more often, instead of three large meals. You may feel more like eating if you do not cook your own foods.
- Drink plenty of fluids, especially when you don't feel like eating. Water is good but lacks calories and electrolytes. Consider carrying a water bottle with you during the day. You can fill it with a sports drink, such as Gatorade or Powerade, which has calories and electrolytes. That may help you get into the habit of drinking plenty of fluids.
- Don't worry too much if you have a day where you cannot eat at all. Do what you can to make yourself feel better and start eating as soon as you feel better. Be sure to tell your doctor if you still can't eat after 1 or 2 days.
If you have serious problems eating and cannot get enough nutrients in your body, you may need to get nutrients another way. This can be done through a tube placed into your stomach or through intravenous (IV) fluids.
Good eating habits for people who have cancer may be very different from normal healthy eating guidelines. Additional information about nutrition is provided by the National Cancer Institute at www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/supportivecare/nutrition/Patient.
Current as of: March 1, 2023
Author: Healthwise Staff
Sarah Marshall MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Ross Berkowitz MD - Obstetrics and Gynecology