Eight tips for eating through cancer treatment

Dec 5, 2023

LCRP dietitian explains why it’s important to maintain weight, muscle mass during your cancer diagnosis

Not wanting to eat during cancer treatment? Are nausea or difficulty swallowing forcing you to skip meals? You are not alone. Changes to appetite are a common result of cancer and treatment and even last during remission.

Cancer and its treatment can affect your appetite in a variety of ways.

“Occasionally, you’ll have an increase in appetite depending on the treatment and depending on the cancer, but most commonly we see a decrease,” says Anna Zugan, outpatient oncology dietitian for the Lewis Cancer & Research Pavilion in Bluffton and Hilton Head. “You could just experience a lack of desire to eat or other side effects could be the cause of loss of appetite.”

Depending on where your cancer is, both infusion therapy (chemotherapy, immunotherapy and targeted therapy) and radiation therapy can cause nausea, occasional vomiting, mouth sores, taste changes and fatigue that can lead to a decrease in appetite.

Some of these side effects can linger even after your treatment is over, still affecting your appetite.

“Depending on the side effects the patient is experiencing, I’ll talk with them, work with them and give them whatever tips I can,” Zugan says. “Every patient is different so I try to individualize each plan.”

Zugan is one of three LCRP dietitians who work with cancer patients – two in Savannah and Zugan in Bluffton/Hilton Head. They meet initially with high-risk radiation therapy patients and chemotherapy patients who score a four or higher on a malnutrition screening test. Our dietitians are available to any patient, however, if the doctor refers them.

Why is all this important?

Prevention of weight loss, particularly muscle mass, will ensure chemotherapy and radiation treatments will work as prescribed at the beginning of treatment. Sustaining a nourishing diet, weight maintenance and inclusion of physical activity also are shown to get you better sooner.

“Trying to maintain your weight and muscle mass will help limit any breaks in treatment or any adjustments that would need to be made since your regiment was based off your weight when you started treatment,” Zugan says. “It’s really important to maintain that muscle mass, which promotes healthy cells and can help with your fatigue.”

Zugan offers these eight tips for eating through cancer treatment and as your symptoms linger:

  1. Eat with the clock, so everyday at 9 a.m., for example, plan to eat breakfast. When the clock strikes 11 a.m., grab a snack and so on throughout the day. You can even set alarms on your phone to remind you.
  2. Take advantage of days and times when you feel better and if you can batch prepare meals and freeze them.
  3. Be sure to get enough protein whether it’s through lean chicken, seafood, legumes and beans or other plant-based sources.
  4. Incorporate fruits and vegetables into your diet as much as you can tolerate. These are also a good source of fluids.
  5. Speaking of, drink plenty of water and if you get bored add in electrolyte drinks.
  6. If you are experiencing mouth sores or difficulty swallowing consider things like chicken broths and soups. Zugan also recommends Greek yogurt or making homemade popsicles for a cooling, soothing option.
  7. Increase your physical activity. This can especially help with fatigue.
  8. Talk to your doctor about possibly adding an appetite stimulate. (Don’t take one without talking to your doctor to make sure it doesn’t interfere with your current medications.)

“I like to tell patients, eat like your treatment is counting on it,” Zugan says. “It’s just as important honestly as your treatment itself.”

If you are a cancer patient or know one that is experiencing trouble maintaining an appetite and regularly eating, our dietitians can help. If you are not already meeting with one, talk to your physician about setting up an appointment.

How can we help you?