Eat, and Eat it Right:

Food and the management of Cancer’s Side-Effects

It can be overwhelming to listen to pieces of advice from varying sources. Especially at the start of a challenging journey, when we don’t know who or what to follow.

What kind of food should a person eat when undergoing treatment? How much? What if they find it difficult to eat? These are common questions asked by both cancer patients and their caregivers.

Since each person’s experience with food and nutrition during cancer treatment is different- it depends on the type of cancer they have, the stage they’re at, the type of treatment they’re receiving, and the medication they’re taking- it is critical to consult a nutritionist or a dietitian. The nutritionist or dietician will regularly monitor the patient’s condition and make a diet chart or plan suited to their needs at that point in time.

That said, both the patient and the caregiver would do well to know some basics of diet during oncological treatment.

The body needs to be supplied with enough and the right nutrition for cells to repair and heal. But it is difficult to eat when you don’t have the appetite for it, or feel full after taking only a few bites of food. Cancer, in combination with its treatment and medication, causes multiple side effects relating to food consumption and digestion. These include: nausea; fatigue; loss of appetite, weight loss, malnutrition; weight gain; fluid retention; vomiting; diarrhea; constipation; taste changes; milk or lactose intolerance; sore mouth, tongue, and throat; dry mouth; difficulty swallowing; narrowing of the food pipe; and tooth decay. The list may seem overwhelming at first, but the basic tips to mitigate all such discomfort remain the same:

  • Avoid large meals. Have small, frequent mini-meals. Food that is cold or at room temperature may be tolerated better than hot food

  • Drink at least 8-12 cups of fiuids in a day, such as water, diluted juice, and soup. It may be easier to tolerate liquids at room temperature

  • Separate the liquids and solids in your meal. Have the solids first, save the liquids for the end
  • Avoid having food containing excess sugar or salt

  • Avoid food that has a high amount of saturated fat

  • Avoid having stale food

  • Use spices such as haldi (turmeric), jeera (cumin), oregano, and garlic. These are powerful cancer-fighting ingredients
  • Tweak the recipe of the prescribed dishes so that it appeals to your taste buds

  • Rinse mouth before and after eating

  • Try to be physically active

There are also subtler, more specific tips to get around each side effect. For example, a person experiencing nausea early in the morning can nibble on dry biscuits or dry toast to settle the stomach. A patient having diarrhoea should eat more low-fiber foods such as white rice and white bread. On the other hand, tackling constipation requires that the patient have more high- fiber food such as brown rice, brown bread, and more vegetables- apart from trying to increase their physical activity.

But, as we have said before, each person’s experience of cancer is unique. What works for someone else may not work for you. Please do consult a cancer dietitian, who will make the right diet plan for you.