Coping with Chemotherapy Side-Effects: A Nutritional Approach

If cancer wasn’t a big enough burden of its own, the treatment to address it brings additional challenges in a patient’s fight for their life.

Chemotherapy (chemo) is a well-known treatment for cancer patients. According to the American Cancer Society, the goal of chemo is to stop, or slow the growth of cancer cells but there are negative side effects that can arise from the treatments. Nutrition can play a big part in improving one’s experience in battling the ugly disease.

Every individual responds differently to the treatments. Patients are encouraged to keep food diaries of what they ate and how they felt to ease the process and work with their healthcare team for better results. Once there is a recognized trend within one’s eating habits, a patient may assess the situation and adjust their lifestyle from there.

Registered dietitian and health coach, Grace Derocha, shares the following tips to help cope with the common side effects of chemotherapy.

“Remember to follow strict food safety guidelines, avoid alcohol and stay hydrated,” said Derocha. “If the unpleasant side effects do not seem to lessen schedule an appointment with your doctor to discuss other options.”

  • Weight-loss. Patients often experience loss of appetite or acquire distastes for certain foods. These situations can lead to weight loss. Smaller meals can help one not feel overwhelmed with finishing their plates. Experiment with flavors, herbs, spices or marinades to find a taste that works to an individual’s liking. Test out different textures from crispy and crunchy to soft and smooth. If one cannot find something they’re partial to, incorporate bland foods that have a high caloric intake such as avocado or nuts. Be sure to do everything in moderation so you’re not overdoing it.
  • Weight-gain. A patient can become partial to junk food or over-eat on foods that fall into their minimal pallet. This can create an imbalance within the diet and result in adding on extra pounds. Focus on a well-balanced diet.
  • Lactose intolerance. Intolerance to lactose is commonly attributed to the cancer-killing drugs that can be damaging to the cells within the lining of the GI tract and intestines. To reduce or avoid bloating and stomach pains, eliminate dairy products or other lactose-containing foods.
  • Constipation. Staying hydrated is the best way to combat constipation. Include foods that are high in fiber such as whole grains, beans, vegetables, fruits and more. Keep a food journal and make note of the amounts. The goal with fiber is to consume 25-40 grams for an adult. The key is to achieve a well-balanced, healthy diet. Not enough fiber can cause constipation and too much fiber without water can cause the constipation that later can cause diarrhea.
  • Diarrhea. If someone is suffering from diarrhea, one of the most detrimental side effects is dehydration. Staying hydrated with plenty of water is a must. Fruit contains fiber which can increase bowel movements. Peel the skins off the fruits before eating them to avoid worsening diarrhea, also avoid alcohol, greasy, fried or extra sugary foods. A good rule of thumb is the B.R.A.T diet to help someone recover with stomach issues. The B.R.A.T acronym stands for bananas, rice, apple sauce and toast. When dealing with digestion issues one should depend more on the bananas and rice or even, outside of B.R.A.T – oatmeal.
  • Nausea/vomiting. When drinking fluids throughout the day sip slowly and keep them cold. Popsicles help address nausea, especially pregnancy popsicles that are cold, tasty and replenish nutrients. Bland foods such as toast, rice or crackers are easier to hold down. Also, consider adding ginger to your diet through ginger ale, ginger tea or ginger candy.
  • Mouth sores. Common and bothersome mouth pain can interfere with a patient’s eating, talking, taste, chewing or swallowing. Gravitate towards custard-like foods, yogurts and smoothies; keeping conscious of lactose, if suffering from lactose intolerance. The cold, soft and creamy texture is soothing, while providing nutrients at the same time. Also remove citrus or acid-base foods that can irritate mouth sores.
  • Dry Mouth. Eat soft foods, while avoiding dry foods and fizzy drinks to help combat dry mouth. Choose moist or liquid options like yogurt, smoothies, slushies, soups, stews and more. Drink plenty of fluids. Hydration is extremely important throughout chemotherapy.

Photo credit: A Healthier Michigan

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