Cancer itself and the ensuing treatment places extra demands on your body, so it’s important to understand how nutrition and exercise can help during treatment, recovery and beyond.
Eating a well-balanced diet can help you to maintain a healthy weight, sustain muscle strength and boost your energy levels – all of which contribute to your quality of life. Good nutrition can also assist with enhancing your mental health, managing the side effects of treatment, wound healing and rebuilding damaged tissues (especially after surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy or other treatment), improving your body’s immune system and reducing the risk of cancer recurring.
Eating Well during treatment looks different for everybody, so an individualised approach is vital. It’s important to understand that different treatments will have different side effects, and everyone responds differently.
You may need more energy during treatment or recovery. Be sure to consume enough calories to maintain your weight and enough protein to maintain your muscle, immune function, energy levels and treatment tolerance.
You may need to adapt what you eat to cope with your body’s changing needs and to prevent weight loss, which often happens due to loss of appetite. If you are concerned about weight loss or weight gain, or if you have a reduced appetite, please consult with your medical team, who can assist you and may refer you to an oncology dietician.
During treatment, taste changes are a very common side effect. Patients often report that “everything tastes like cardboard”. Try adding extra sauces, salt, spices and gravies to boost the flavour of your meals.
You may also experience taste sensitivity. Try opting for bland/simple foods to counteract the very sweet or very salty taste. Maintaining good oral hygiene is also important, so keep up with regular brushing and use a mouthwash daily.
Another side effect is experiencing a metallic taste. Try using disposable/non-metal cutlery to counteract this. Also maintain good oral hygiene with regular brushing and use a mouthwash daily.
Bowel changes can be caused by immunotherapy, targeted treatment, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, antibiotics, pain medication, infections or viruses and stress. Always talk to your treating team about any bowel changes. Patients sometimes blame certain foods, which may not be the case.
Serious side effects can cause extreme bowel issues and need to be addressed immediately with your treating team.
Diarrhoea – Ensure adequate fluid intake to prevent dehydration, small frequent meals and snacks, eat foods high in soluble fibre (oats, white rice, pasta), limit alcohol, caffeine, artificial sweeteners and large amounts of soft drink/cordial/fruit juice. Hydralyte can be helpful. If diarrhoea is an issue, please consult your treating medical team urgently.
Constipation – Increase fluid intake – dehydration can cause/worsen constipation, eat foods high in fibre (oats, wholegrains, fruits and vegetables – kiwi fruit works well), do gentle movement to stimulate muscles which help bowel contract. If constipation is an issue, please consult your treating medical team urgently.
See your dentist regularly and let them know which treatment you’re undergoing. Your dental professional can advise you on caring for your teeth and mouth during and after treatment.
If you’re having radiotherapy to the head or neck, it’s important to have your teeth checked, because radiation can affect your teeth and gums.
Immunotherapy and chemotherapy can cause oral health issues, especially in those who already have issues with their mouth, teeth or gums.
It’s important that you try to maintain your weight, which will assist your recovery.
Consult with your treatment team to get up-to-date and evidence-based information and to identify ways to assist you in your recovery. The following are recommended suggestions that may assist you.
Learn more about Eating Well in survivorship.
Learn more about Living Well After Cancer.
Talk to your GP, pharmacist or dietitian before taking a supplement or starting a diet.
All cells use glucose as their primary source of fuel before other forms of energy. Our bodies produce glucose on their own, even if we don’t eat sugar! In the absence of glucose, cancer cells will go to the next fuel source – protein and fats. Eliminating all dietary sugars and carbs can lead to lack of fuel for our bodies, which gives us energy, especially when going through treatment.
Eating acidic or alkaline foods will not alter the pH of your blood or body. The body tightly controls its pH, regardless of diet. If you could change the pH of your blood, your healthy cells would also not survive. There have been no studies to support an alkaline diet.
Fasting puts you at high risk of not getting enough nutrition at a time when your body needs plenty of calories, protein, vitamins and minerals to help cope with treatment.
Maintaining your weight through treatment is an important factor in keeping you well. For cancer prevention, it’s recommended to follow a well-balanced diet, including food from all 5 food groups, combined with regular movement.
What works for you may not work for others – individualised care is important. A qualified dietitian can assist with your nutritional needs.
If you need assistance with your diet, ask your GP for a referral to a dietitian who can help with managing your diet. Dietitians must complete a university degree and will have the letters APD after their name. You can also contact the Dietitians Association of Australia and go to ‘Find a Dietitian’ on their website.
Be wary of advice offered on social media. Look closely at the person’s credentials – is their qualification from a well-known university or are they trying to sell you something?
Reference: Eating Well webinar, 12 October 2021, presented by Megan Sanders, APD – Clinical Oncology Dietitian
Disclaimer: This information is general advice and does not consider your objectives, health situation or needs. Specific nutritional advice must be tailored to the individual. This information will give you a general idea of the options available to you, however, you’ll need to determine what is appropriate for you.