Chemotherapy is the use of medication to slow down or stop the uncontrolled division and growth of cancer cells, and most patients need regular doses of chemicals in a series of treatments over a period of time. This toxic burden on the body can compromise the immune system and cause side effects, which make it difficult to eat normally. However, a healthy diet could help your body heal, speed up recovery time between treatments, and improve energy levels and general wellbeing.
Although each patient’s specific requirements differ, the main goals of a nutrition plan during chemotherapy are the consumption of enough kilojoules to prevent weight loss and enough protein to help strengthen the immune system.
Everyone’s experience of chemotherapy is different and it’s important to discuss your particular nutritional circumstances with your doctor or dietician. You may find during the treatment period that your reactions to tastes, smells and textures of foods change, that your favourite foods become unappealing, or that you don’t have much appetite at all. Experts suggest you consider eating smaller amounts more frequently – try to finish six small meals a day, making each one of them as nutrient-dense as possible, and keep snacks on hand for whenever you feel able to eat something.
Your shopping list
In general, the foods you eat while on chemotherapy need to be nutritious, high in kilojoules and protein, inoffensive in smell or flavour, and easily consumed. Choose unrefined carbohydrates like brown rice, oats, barley or quinoa; wholegrain breads and pastas provide valuable minerals and vitamins as well as fibre to cleanse toxins from the colon and help prevent intestinal infections. Limit your consumption of red meat or processed meats in favour of lean protein in chicken or fish to boost your immune system. Beans are a good source of protein if you find it difficult to eat meat, and can be added to rice to make a complete meal. You could try eggs, particularly scrambled or made into egg mayonnaise, or tuna. Cottage cheese, high in protein, is soft and easy to chew. You can get extra kilojoules from smoothies, puddings, milk-based soups, or mashed potatoes with added butter, cream or cheese, or try incorporating peanut butter, avocado, hummus, tofu or protein powder into foods and drinks wherever possible. In general, avoid foods that are highly spiced, fried, or very sweet and sugary. In most circumstances you should still try to eat between seven and nine daily servings of fruit and vegetables.
Some studies show that certain foods seem to help the body’s reaction to chemotherapy, increasing the effects of the medication on cancer cells. Amongst these are vegetables and fruits containing apigenin, especially cherries, grapes and apples, as well as nuts, parsley, celery, basil and artichoke. Other ideas for nutritious snacks include yoghurt, bananas, buttered popcorn, granola, ice cream, and crackers with cheese or peanut butter.
Along with a meal, or even instead of it, you could drink protein or energy supplements, which may also be added to milkshakes and hot chocolate or sprinkled on cereal. Try to limit other fluids with meals, as they can make you feel full without having much nutritional value. Between meals, drink plenty of milk, diluted fruit juices, sports drinks, herbal teas or flavoured water. Avoid caffeinated beverages, as they have a dehydrating effect, and limit alcohol to minimise the strain on your liver, which is working hard to metabolise the chemotherapy toxins.
Stop those side effects
One of the most common side effects of chemotherapy is nausea, and managing this can greatly improve quality of life and improve your appetite. Peppermint or lemon tea may help, and ginger, a natural digestive aid, has been found to ease nausea – you can add a slice of fresh ginger to boiling water to make a tea, or suck on crystallised ginger, or take it in the form of a supplement. Washing your mouth out with lemon water after eating could help you feel less nauseated, as can sucking on ice cubes, mints or hard sweets. Some patients find that cool or room temperature food, which tends to smell less strongly, is more tolerable than hot food. If you’re battling nausea, it’s best not to lie down straight after a meal as that can interfere with efficient digestion.
Make hygiene a priority
During chemotherapy, the reduced functioning of the immune system may mean you’re more susceptible to food poisoning, so it’s important to be extremely careful about food hygiene. Anyone preparing your food should wash their hands thoroughly beforehand and pets should be kept out of the kitchen. Fruit and vegetables need to be washed carefully and cooking utensils, chopping boards, kitchen cloths and worktops should be cleaned and disinfected regularly. If you’re storing cooked food in the fridge, let it reach room temperature first, and reheat it once only.
Though you may not feel like eating much at all, try to spark your appetite with new and different foods. Experiment – your tastes may change from day to day. It could be helpful to keep a food and symptom diary to identify links between diet and how you feel, enabling you to minimise side effects of the treatment. You may notice you’re able to eat more early in the day than later, and you could find that gentle regular exercise stimulates your appetite. Plan your meals ahead, and where possible ask for help from family and friends if you have difficulty shopping for or preparing food.