Cancer and cancer treatments cause various changes in the body. Change in taste and loss of appetite are among the top side effects of cancer. If left untreated, they can result in malnutrition, impairing the body’s ability to fight off the disease and recover. In this article, we explain the role of good nutrition in cancer treatment, the eating challenges for cancer patients and share top tips to help ensure a nutritious, healthy and balanced diet which supports cancer recovery.
1. Why Eating Nutritious and Healthy Diet Is Important in Cancer Treatment?
Nutrition plays a crucial role in providing the body with the energy and strength it needs to recover from an illness. Especially with cancer, the body needs an extra supply of calories, proteins, vitamins and other essential nutrients to repair and replace the damaged cells and rebuild its bodily functions. Eating a nutritious and well-balanced diet during cancer treatment such as radiation therapy or chemotherapy can put your body in the best position to heal from cancer.
Here are the ways that adequate and healthy eating can help patients during their cancer treatment:
- Gives the body more energy to repair and rebuild
- Improves the way a patient responds to the treatment
- Rebuilds and maintains the body’s store of nutrients, muscle mass and body weight
- Preserves immune function
- Reduces inflammation
- Helps manage the side effects of cancer and treatment like fatigue, diarrhoea, or nausea
- Lowers the risk of infection
- Shorten recovery time
2. Why Is Eating A Challenge For Cancer Patients?
Firstly, many cancer patients do not feel the urge to eat. This is a natural body reaction to direct as much energy as possible to combating the disease. You may have experienced this when you are down with a flu or cold.
Secondly, cancer treatment may come with side effects that can affect appetite and the ability to ingest, absorb, and metabolise important nutrients. Loss of appetite is reported in approximately 50% newly diagnosed cancer patients. Other common side effects such as fatigue, nausea, vomiting, mouth sores, diarrhoea further impair appetite and absorption of nutrients.
3. The Risk of Malnutrition among Cancer Patients
Prolonged poor supply of nutrients can result in malnutrition, which is often linked to less effective treatment outcomes. Cancer-related malnutrition occurs by a lack of key nutrients that are not absorbed due to cancer and cancer treatments. It is estimated to affect up to 85% of patients with certain cancers including pancreatic cancer.
When a cancer patient experiences malnutrition, their body becomes weak and loses its ability to respond to therapies and fight infections, resulting in a weaker immune system. The following are the risk factors that cause malnutrition in people with cancer.
3.1. Location of the Cancer:
In general, a person is at higher risk of malnutrition if he/she has gastrointestinal cancer, which causes difficulties with swallowing and eating. If cancer is located in the areas of the liver, pancreas, intestine, head, and neck, it will also become difficult to consume nutrients because of digestive issues, difficulty in swallowing, and malabsorption.
3.2. Side Effects of Cancer:
Cancer cells are known to be able to alter multiple metabolism processes in the body. The linkage is muti-faceted and still being further researched. For some cancer patients, these changes result in starvation and the loss of lean muscle mass. When this happens, they may experience weakness and weight loss (cachexia) and long-term loss of appetite (anorexia). Both conditions lead to malnutrition in cancer patients. Stomach, pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancers are often associated with anorexia.
3.3. Side Effects of Cancer Treatment:
Cancer treatments like hormone therapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, and chemotherapy cause side effects in many patients, including loss of appetite, vomiting, digestive tract ulcers, and altered taste and smell. Treatments for breast and prostate cancers may cause reduction in calcium and vitamin D levels, resulting in bone loss.
Those who experience severe side effects are at increased risk of getting insufficient nutrients.
4. Top 8 Ways To Stimulate Appetite And Boost Nutrition During & After Cancer Treatment
Since eating is a real challenge for people with cancer, maintaining a sufficient and healthy diet cannot be achieved simply by ‘stuffing’ the patient. As a palliative caregiver or cancer patient, we need the right tactics to restore appetite and ensure sufficient nutrition supply for ourselves or loved ones. The following are some nutritional tips to keep your body strong throughout the treatment:
4.1. Add Liquid Food
When cancer treatment causes sore mouths or difficulties with chewing and swallowing solid foods, you can try liquid foods. They are easier to swallow and digest, take less time to consume and can provide as much or even more calories than solid foods. Moreover, liquid foods keep the body hydrated. Remember, you should drink at least 8 to 12 cups of water a day even if you are resting for most parts of the day.
Replacing solid with liquid foods is very helpful on days when you cannot eat. If you are pressed for time and too tired to prepare liquid foods, opt for pre-made liquid meal replacement such as bouillon (condensed broth cube), protein drinks, sports drinks, or meal-replacement shakes. The following are some liquid foods to consume:
- Nutritious soup and broth
- Pureed and blenderized food
- Vegetable or fruit juice
- Caffeine-free tea
- Clear carbonated beverages
4.2. Soften Food
In addition to liquid food, soft food is another good option to enrich the menu. Some foods are harder to swallow, such as tough meat, dry biscuits, or nuts, further irritating the sensitive taste buds of cancer patients. Below are some tips to get enough calories and nutrients when trying soft foods:
- Soft foods to try: scrambled eggs with baked beans, yogurt, custard, jelly or pudding.
- Eat soft cereals, or porridge with minced meat or minced ingredients.
- Prepare moist and soft foods by adding milk, cream, or butter to the recipes.
- You can also use liquid food as dips to soften dry and harder foods when serving, for example, dipping bread in soup or cookies in milk.
4.3. Try Frozen Foods
When it is difficult for you to make your meals or you feel nauseous while making a meal, try quick frozen foods, such as frozen yogurt, smooth ice cream, popsicles, and canned fruits. These types of foods are high in calories and do not require chewing, both of which cancer patients need.
You can make your own nutritious ice cream from your favorite milkshake and freeze it. When consuming ice cream frequently, try to balance your diet with other healthier options such as soup, leafy green veggies and whole grains.
4.4. Eat 5-6 Meals A Day Instead Of 3 Meals
Another tip to get enough calories and nutrients according to your bodily needs is to aim for 5-6 smaller meals and snacks instead of 3 meals a day. It is because cancer patients often feel full after eating a small meal due to their loss of appetite and taste changes. So, whenever you get the urge to eat, you should eat even if it is not mealtime.
Having more frequent meals in smaller amounts helps you eat more types of food, consume more calories and nutrition.
4.5. Have More Snacks
Snacking may not be advisable to those who want to lose weight, but it is a useful tactic to add calories and protein to the diet of cancer patients. To eat more snacks, keep them nearby at home and take them with you every time you go out. Eating a bedtime snack can also help you get extra calories without affecting your appetite for the next meal.
Try these tips to incorporate snacks to your dietary routine:
- Munch on snacks throughout the day whenever you can.
- Eat protein-rich snacks that are easy to prepare and consume. These include sandwiches, crackers, a bowl of soup, cereal & milk, and yogurt.
- Ready-made snacks such as dried fruits, granola bars, and peanut butter are also good choices.
- Avoid snacks that worsen the side effects of cancer. For example, if you have diarrhoea, you should not eat food that triggers your tummy. If you have a sore mouth or throat, you should avoid eating dry or acidic snacks.
4.6. Consume More Protein-Dense Foods
To fight off cancer and strengthen your immunity, it is vital to increase your protein intake. During chemotherapy or radiation therapy, patients need extra protein to build and repair the damaged tissues, produce the necessary hormones and enzymes to restore the bodily functions. The body also needs protein to replenish its energy source which could be lowered during cancer recovery.
Below are some food sources of protein you should incorporate in your diet:
- Lean meat
- Fish and seafood, such as salmon
- Seeds, nuts and nut butters
- Low-fat yogurt and dairy products
- Beans and lentils
- Soy, tofu and other soy products
4.7. Add Calories To Your Drink
To get enough calories, try adding extra calories to your drinks. This has the benefit of boosting your calorie intake, while making 8 glasses of liquid a day more enjoyable to drink. For example, you can add fresh fruits to your milkshake. You can also make smoothies by adding fruits, veggies, or ice cream to the milk.
4.8. Other Tips To Boost Appetite During Cancer Treatment
When building your cancer-fighting diet, it is crucial to note that everyone is different. You may need to try a few different options to know what works best for you. Below are a few additional tips related to cancer diet.
- Make sure to eat the right foods for you. If you have nausea, constipation, or diarrhoea, you should avoid foods that trigger them even if they meet the requirements for protein and nutrients supply.
- Use herbs and spices moderately and adjust it to the cancer patient’s preference. Many people are sensitive and nauseous to strong flavours during cancer recovery.
- Exercise is linked to improvement in appetite: Try to be active throughout the day as your body allows you.
- Side effects like depression and anxiety may happen during cancer treatment and can aggravate appetite and nutrition intake. Make sure to find emotional support from your parents and loved ones or support groups to overcome anxiety and depression.
- If you’re having severe nausea, diarrhoea, or sudden weight loss despite eating the foods recommended by your oncologist and cancer care team, you should seek immediate medical attention to solve the issue.
- For certain types of cancers or therapies where nutrient deficiency is a common side effect, your doctor may prescribe vitamins and supplements, which you should take as required (for example, vitamin D and calcium supplements in breast and prostate cancers)
5. Takeaway Message
Sufficient nutrition is crucial in recovery from illnesses, more so during cancer treatment. Yet the various side effects from cancer treatment and cancer itself can make eating arduous for cancer patients. Eating plenty of nutritious foods, adding liquid replacements, consuming more protein and calories, exercising regularly, and snacking throughout the day can help you overcome cancer-related side effects and recover faster. When it comes to food types, the general guidance is to choose foods that are nutrient dense, easy on your stomach, and mild in flavour.
In the event these tips do not help, contact your cancer doctor or relevant healthcare providers for prompt intervention. Remember, loss of appetite could be a common side effect, but there are ways to manage it and you do not have to further suffer because of it.