Weight loss and malnutrition are serious threats to patients battling cancer, who can find that their tumours or treatment sap their appetite, cause nausea and other side effects and block absorption the nutrients they do force down.
Here are some tips from cancer specialists and dietitians to help:
• Try to eat five or six small meals throughout the day rather than three large ones.
• Cancer patients tend to need more protein than healthy people. Peanut butter crackers, yogurt and fruit, a hard-boiled egg and piece of toast all are good mini-meals.
• Drink between meals, not with them, to avoid filling up on liquid.
• Don’t try your comfort food if you’re vomiting. It may create an aversion.
• Foods high in fat or fibre make nausea last longer.
• White, bland foods tend to help with nausea, such as cream of wheat, mashed potatoes, cottage cheese.
• Odours often worsen nausea, and foods served at room temperature rather than warm tend to have milder odours.
• Fresh ginger about 30 minutes before eating also can take the edge off nausea, but not ginger flavouring common in many sodas. A study published last week found ginger capsules work, too.
• Certain cancer medications, particularly painkillers, cause constipation, so keep up the fibre whenever the nausea passes.
• Take special care to stay hydrated when diarrhea strikes. Bananas, rice, applesauce and toast are good options.
• Many patients find foods that once tasted good now taste metallic. Citrus sometimes counters that; try sucking lemon drops, or drinking lemonade with meals, or using citrus-based marinades. Other patients may have a treatment-caused, and correctable, zinc deficiency.
• Tell your doctor about any over-the-counter dietary supplements. Some, such as St. John’s wort, can cause dangerous interactions with numerous anticancer medications. Even high amounts of acidic vitamin C can worsen stomach problems.
• Staying hydrated and eating foods moistened with sauces and gravies helps dry mouth; doctors also can prescribe an artificial saliva.
• High-protein, high-calorie milkshakes and canned supplements like Ensure help sneak in extra nutrients and are especially helpful for patients with mouth sores. Make your own with whole milk and a few tablespoons of dry milk or protein powder.
• Ask for a consultation with a dietitian who specializes in cancer before you start losing weight. Specially designated cancer centres often have dietitians on staff.