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Understanding the Eating and Nutrition Challenges Faced by Cancer Patients

July 02, 2024
For people undergoing cancer treatment, their body may respond in unexpected ways. One concern many patients bring up is being able to get proper nutrition and navigate the everyday tasks of preparing food and eating.
Cancer itself, as well as various treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation, can have a profound impact on appetite, taste, digestion, and mental capacity or energy.
Struggles with eating faced by cancer patients
Cancer and its treatments can test the body, leading to a variety of eating-related issues and side effects that can not only make it difficult to consume enough calories and nutrients, but impact overall quality of life. These can include:
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Dehydration
  • Taste changes
  • Mouth sores
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Changes in weight
For some patients, the mental toll of cancer can also affect their appetite. Depression is common, and feelings of sadness, tiredness, or low energy can interfere with daily life and one’s ability or desire to eat and drink. Others may have trouble with physical movements, making it difficult to prepare or cook food. In addition, brain fog, mental exhaustion, or emotional exhaustion can make thinking about eating or meal planning difficult.
No shame or blame
For caregivers, family members, or friends who have a loved one dealing with cancer, it's important to avoid blaming or shaming them for not eating or having a loss of appetite. Avoid judgment and criticism and instead, be encouraging. Rather than nag or fight about eating, focus on providing options that are comforting and appealing.
Offer frequent healthy snacks and keep cool drinks or liquid meals within reach and in sight. Let your loved one decide when and what they want to eat. If the patient has issues with bitter or metallic tastes, try plastic utensils or straws. If the patient can't or doesn’t want to eat, offer your company instead, and let them know you’re there to support them, including when they do want to eat. 
Helpful tips when eating is a challenge
There will be days when eating presents no issues and days when even a small sip of water is unbearable. Remember to take each day one at a time. Consider these four tips to help nourish the body and minimize stress around eating: 
1. Eat frequent, small meals. Instead of three large meals, have smaller, more frequent ones throughout the day. This can help manage nausea and maintain energy levels.
2. Consume nutrient-dense foods. Focus on nutrient-dense foods full of vitamins, minerals, and calories. Incorporate fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats.
3. Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water throughout the day and incorporate hydrating foods such as soups, smoothies, and fruits with high water content.
4. Experiment with different flavors. Cancer treatments may alter one’s sense of taste. Experiment with different flavors and seasonings to make meals more palatable.
Resources for accessing healthy foods
Social determinants of health are non-medical factors that can affect health outcomes, such as food insecurity, the lack of ability to afford or access health nutritive food. Cancer patients facing food insecurity may postpone medical care, underuse medications, or not comply with prescribed therapies because they are faced with the dilemma of choosing between paying for food or paying for medical care.
There are resources available to help patients or loved ones get necessary nutrients such as food pantries, community gardens, the government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program, or Meals on Wheels.
By understanding the challenges cancer patients face when it comes to eating and nutrition, patients and their loved ones will be able to maintain the strength and resiliency needed to manage the cancer journey.

For upcoming webinars visit www.TexasOncologyFoundation.org.