This content was written by Chelsea Johnson, MS, RD, LDN, one of Thompson Cancer Survival Center’s Clinical Dietitians.
Managing Nutrition During Cancer Treatment
Before, during, and after treatment, nutrition can be challenging for patients and caregivers. Radiation therapy uses high-energy beams to destroy cancer cells. While treating cancer cells, surrounding healthy cells can be damaged. Unlike chemotherapy, radiation only causes changes to the area being treated. This means that symptoms vary based on what part of the body is being treated. For example, radiation to the head and neck can make it difficult to swallow, while radiation to the abdomen may cause diarrhea.
Symptom management is the main role of nutrition care during your cancer journey. Radiation treatment symptoms can include changes in appetite, absorption concerns, trouble digesting food, and potentially malnutrition. This can make treatment difficult to complete. As a registered dietitian (RD), I want to empower my patients to set feasible nutrition goals. My hope is to help you speed healing and take on the challenge with confidence. Let’s break down what to expect as you prepare for radiation. While reading, think about what nutrition goals you want to achieve, no matter where you are in the healing process. Remember, being proactive about your nutrition needs is a powerful form of self‐care and should be shaped around what works best for you, your family, and your treatment plan.
Staying hydrated is the key. Now, say it louder ‐ staying hydrated is the key! Dehydration, meaning your body is losing more water than it takes in, is common during treatment. Many symptoms like diarrhea, vomiting, fever, poor appetite, and fatigue can cause dehydration. Fluids are important for energy, organ function, and healing. Not to mention, staying hydrated helps combat fatigue. Water, juices, broths, sports drinks, popsicles are all great sources of hydration. To give a punch of flavor, infuse water with fruits or vegetables.
Quick Tip: Aim for 64 ounces or more of fluid daily to stay hydrated. This is the same as drinking at least half a cup of water per hour while awake.
Research shows patients who eat and drink well tolerate treatment better with fewer breaks. This means, it is important to have a plan for creatively tackling symptoms.
Common symptoms during radiation treatment are fatigue, appetite change, digestive issues, trouble swallowing, sore throat, and more. Thinking about food like medication during treatment can help you overcome many of these symptoms. For example, you may have a schedule for medications. The same is recommended for meals and snacks. Eat smaller, high-quality meals and snacks every 2-3 hours. Appetite cues can be unreliable, setting an alarm on your oven every few hours reminds you to grab a snack while in the kitchen. Have high quality snacks ready-to-grab like nuts, yogurts, milk, avocado, dips made with beans, eggs, fruits and vegetables, oatmeal, and more.
Treatments to the head, neck, and chest can cause difficulty chewing or swallowing. Texture modification is typically the first strategy for overcoming swallowing challenges. Add gravies or sauces to make foods easier to swallow. Choose lukewarm and cool foods to comfortably swallow. Your physician may recommend a feeding tube as a useful, temporary tool for nutrition and hydration.
Quick Tip: Liquid nutrition can help with a variety of symptoms. Your dietitian can recommend oral nutrition supplements. Not only can homemade smoothies and shakes be easy and soothing, it is a great way to take inventory of your kitchen. Do you have bananas that may not be eaten soon? Stick them in the freezer for a refreshing smoothie base. Check out the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR) drink recipes packed with cancer-fighting foods.
Your doctor may recommend medications to help manage side effects. Nutrition strategies tag alongside medications to give you the most comfort and strength.
Maintain Your Weight
We use weight as a measure to tell if your body is getting the energy it needs to heal. Cancer patients have higher calorie, protein, and fluid needs, especially during treatment. Keeping your weight stable not only means your body can rebuild tissue, but it helps improve outcomes. Research shows a direct link between nutrition status and immune system function, treatment outcomes, muscle mass preservation, and quality of life. These are all things we want in tip top shape through your cancer journey. An easy way to keep track of your weight is to weigh yourself at home at the same time every week.
Carbohydrates, proteins, and fats all play a role in the healing process. They also give your body energy. To make sure your body gets the vitamins and minerals it needs to heal, aim for variety. The more colors, the better!
Quick Tip: Include a protein source at each meal and snack. This is important for strong muscles. The more variety, the better. Good sources of protein include beans, fish, beef, chicken, eggs, tofu, milk, lentils, nuts and seeds.
After radiation therapy, nutrition goals focus on healing. Part of the healing process is focusing on cancer prevention. The AICR lists ten ways to prevent cancer through nutrition and lifestyle. Click here to get reliable advice on cancer prevention.
Quick Tip: Being physically active helps prevent cancer. It also builds muscle strength and combats fatigue. Walking 30-minutes, 5 days per week meets AICR’s recommendation for cancer prevention. Find something you enjoy like yoga, walking a pet, or exercise videos.
Radiation can cause changes to your relationship with food, and change is hard. Taking action to be informed and making a plan gives you tools to cope with treatment. Gather your team of friends, family, caregivers who can help with cooking, shopping, or mealtime reminders. Talk to your cancer team about any concerns you may have around meeting your nutrition goals throughout treatment. Cancer impacts not only the patient but everyone around them. It truly takes a team to conquer cancer.