Side Effects During Cancer Treatment

For Survivors


Hello friend! Proper nutrition is SO important while going through treatment for repairing your healthy cells, maintaining strength, and preventing unwanted weight loss. Unfortunately, several cancer treatment methods often have side effects that leave you wanting to lie in bed, turn off all the lights, and the last thing you want to think about is food, let alone getting up and preparing anything. Listen, these are the hard days. Remind yourself that they will pass and do the best you can to take care of yourself. No, it won’t look the same as when you’re feeling like you’re on top of the world, but it can help you feel more human and allow your body to bounce back after treatments. You got this! 

Common Cancer Treatment Side Effects

Some of the most common treatment side effects are loss of appetite, nausea, taste changes, and low energy. These can make it challenging to maintain a healthy diet and just do normal day-to-day things. Although the symptoms can be daunting, know that you are not defenseless, and you can start to implement strategies to combat these symptoms when they come up. Before even starting treatment, prepare by eating a balanced diet high in protein, get plenty of rest, and prioritize daily movement.  

Loss of Appetite During Treatment

This is one of the most common symptoms my clients deal with. This lack of interest in food and eating may be linked to the treatment’s effects on the gastrointestinal system, metabolism, or even the cancer itself. 

  1. Spread out your intake. Instead of having three large meals a day, try 5-6 small frequent meals. This will make it seem less overwhelming. 
  2. Make eating more enjoyable. Use pretty dishes, listen to music, and enjoy a meal with a friend/family member. If you live alone or are “people’d out”, try sitting down to an episode of your favorite comfort show as a distraction. 
  3. Try to add in as much movement as you can since this will help to stimulate your appetite. Even adding a brief 10-30 minute walk before meal times can help. 
  4. It can be easier to drink than eat. Use smoothies high in protein and protein shakes to get in calories! 
  5. Pay attention to when your appetite is the best/worst and try to optimize those windows by having a slightly larger meal or adding snacks. 

Nutrition Approaches for Nausea and Vomiting

Chemotherapy and radiation can trigger nausea and vomiting, which can lead to dehydration and malnutrition if not managed. I know its hard, but you still need to eat even when you really don’t feel like it. Try some of the tips below to make mealtimes more manageable.

  1. Small frequent meals are once again the way to go. Eat slowly in a comfortable place. 
  2. Avoid drinking and eating at the same time. Wait about 30 minutes before and after meals to drink something. 
  3. Eat room temperature food rather than hot or cold foods. Hot foods also may have strong smells which can trigger nausea/vomiting. 
  4. Avoid strong smells by avoiding food preparation areas and save the microwave for after treatment since it can dispell strong smells. 
  5. Try crackers or toast first thing in the morning if you have morning nausea. 
  6. Wear looser fitted clothing. 

Mouth Sores/Mucositis

Some chemotherapy drugs can change the lining of your mouth resulting in painful sores that make eating difficult. 

  1. Practice excellent oral hygiene but avoid alcohol based mouthwashes since these can irritate the sores. 
  2. Try rinsing with a mixture of baking soda and water before and after meals. 
  3. Drink plenty of water. Slightly warm fluids may be easier to drink. 
  4. Avoid dry, rough, spicy, and acidic foods. This break up with your favorite hot sauce is only temporary. For now, bland is best.
  5. Suck on frozen fruit or ice. Avoid chewing ice since it can damage your teeth. 

Taste Changes from Chemotherapy

During treatment, your taste buds may be damaged, resulting in a change of taste perception. You may have no taste at all or foods may have an overly bitter or metallic taste, making mealtimes unpleasant. 

  1. If foods have no taste – Practice good oral hygiene and add sauces like hot sauce or barbeque sauce.
  2. If foods have an “off” taste – use citrus marinades, fresh herbs, pickles, or hot sauce. 
  3. If foods taste metallic or bitter – avoid using metal silverware and opt for plastic or bamboo instead
  4. If you have a meat aversion – add fruit based marinades or sweet and sour sauce. Opt for high protein alternatives such as eggs, tofu, beans, or daily. 

What to do when you have Low Energy / Fatigue 

Treatments or the cancer itself can zap your energy, and it may feel tempting to just lay in bed until the feeling passes. During the bad days, we still need to take care of ourselves. Ask for help in your circle. Maybe your family members can do more of the chores or your coworkers, members of your sewing circle, or church can take turns bringing meals. Let them know ahead of time if you are avoiding certain foods due to treatment side effects. Remember that admitting we need help is a sign of strength. You would do the same for a loved one going through something similar. If you are currently trying to navigate the overwhelm that comes along with treatment, consider working with a board certified dietitian (such as myself) so that you can be sure you are doing everything you can to keep your body strong during and after treatment. Click here to learn more about my 1:1 coaching program. Some other things you can do to combat fatigue during treatment:

  1. Eat more prepared foods. You may have to rely on more convenience items such as frozen meals or use leftovers that were prepared using safe food practices. 
  2. Avoid being sedentary. Choose gentle movement like a walk or stretching. 
  3. Do something that will distract you without draining all your energy. Maybe you like painting or reading. 
  4. Avoid sleeping all day. Short naps are fine, but any longer than 30 minutes may impact the quality of sleep you get at night. Irregular sleep patterns can actually worsen fatigue and contribute to the vicious cycle. Set a timer or alarm so you don’t get carried away during naptime.

In Closing . . . 

There is so much you can do to reduce the severity of nutrition impact symptoms. By working closely with your healthcare team, experimenting with different foods and strategies, and being patient with yourself, you can help your body heal between treatments by giving it the tools it needs to do so. Remember that your journey is unique! What works best for one individual may not be the same for another. Be patient and compassionate with yourself during this time, and don’t be afraid to ask for help! Just reading this blog means you are taking the steps to help yourself not just survive but THRIVE as you go through treatments. Give yourself a big hug. I’m so proud of you and cheering you on as you do this! 

Want all the answers about how to fuel yourself during cancer, but not sure where to start? My Membership, Cancer Simplified, gives you the essentials you need to face cancer with confidence. None of the nitty gritty science articles, no more endless google searches. Just easy guided modules with trainings by myself and other experts in the field. Click here to join! 

My new book is filled with recipes that are simple, nutritious, and chock-full of cancer prevention ingredients so that you can quiet the question “What do I eat??!” and fuel without fear. Click here to pre-order your copy of The F*** Cancer Cookbook

Don’t forget to also check out my first book and a #1 Bestseller, Sugar Does Not Feed Cancer: The Complete Guide to Cancer Prevention Nutrition & Lifestyle. Inside, I break down the basics of cancer metabolism and provide practical nutrition guidance to help you feel completely confident around food and mealtimes while reducing cancer risk!

This blog is not intended as medical nutrition therapy, medical advice, or diagnosis and should in no way replace consultation or recommendations from your medical professional.

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