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Eating the right kinds of foods before, during and after treatment can help a cancer patient feel better and stay stronger. To ensure proper nutrition, a person needs enough foods that contain key nutrients (vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates, fat and water). For many patients, however, the side effects of cancer and its treatment make eating well a challenging task. The most common problem is not getting enough of the high-protein and high-calorie foods necessary for healing, fighting infection and supplying energy.

Nutritional guidelines for cancer patients differ from general recommendations for healthful eating. That is why dieticians from Beaumont work with patients and the oncology team to develop individual care plans to accommodate nutritional needs and resolve eating problems. A nutritional assessment evaluates intake, weight, diet, nutritional needs and problem areas. Dieticians also offer nutrition consultations and advice to families outside the hospital for no charge.

Nutritional management of treatment side effects

There is more to nutrition during cancer and cancer therapy than getting enough calories and protein. The foods you choose also help you cope with side effects, such as loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, chewing and swallowing difficulties, and taste changes.

As each person's individual medical profile and diagnosis is different, so is his/her reaction to treatment. Side effects may be severe, mild, or absent. Be sure to discuss with your cancer care team any/all possible side effects of treatment before the treatment begins.

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Nutrition before cancer treatment begins

It is very important to maintain proper nutrition before, during, and after cancer treatment. Such treatments may involve radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, biological immunotherapy, and/or surgery. These procedures and medications can cause many individuals to lose their appetite and energy, putting them at an increased risk for malnutrition.

Your food choices when you have cancer and are undergoing treatment may be very different from what you are used to eating. The main goal is to try to keep your weight constant. In order to minimize weight changes, heal properly, and maintain the energy to cope with all the new challenges treatment may bring, you should try to eat a wide variety of high-calorie and high-protein foods, including the following:

  • milk, cream, and cheese
  • cooked eggs
  • sauces and gravies
  • butter, margarine, and oil

Sometimes, the recommendations given to you detailing what you should eat during your treatment will seem like the opposite of what you have always heard a healthy diet should include. You may be encouraged to follow a high-calorie, high-protein diet, especially if you are feeling weak or are underweight. It can be a challenge to get enough nutrients because you may not feel well or may not feel like eating. Proper attention to nutrition can assist in an easier recovery.

Eating well before cancer treatment begins may help to increase your energy and improve your sleeping patterns. If you have lost weight before starting treatment due to your cancer, you may be encouraged to follow a high-protein, high-calorie diet. To prepare yourself and your home for your nutritional needs during cancer therapy, consider the following suggestions:

  • Stock the refrigerator with plenty of your favorite foods so that you will not have to shop as often. Make sure these are foods you can eat when you are not feeling well
  • Cook large portions of your favorite dishes in advance and freeze them in meal-sized portions
  • So that you can save your energy, buy foods that are easy to prepare, such as peanut butter, pudding, frozen dinners, soup, canned fish or chicken, cheese, and eggs
  • Ask family and friends to help you cook and shop
  • Talk to a registered dietitian about meal planning, grocery shopping, and reducing side effects of treatment, such as nausea and diarrhea
  • Talk to your physician or registered dietitian about whether you should take a multivitamin

By planning ahead, you will have foods on hand that you like to eat, which will be beneficial to you later. You will have good things to choose from in your kitchen even if you do not feel well enough to prepare an elaborate meal. You may also come to think differently about your weight. If you have been concerned in the past about weight gain, your focus will likely change to eating enough to keep your weight constant.

Before treatment begins, a cancer tumor itself can cause problems that may result in eating problems or weight loss. It is not uncommon to have lactose intolerance (intolerance to milk sugar), nausea, vomiting, poor digestion, or a feeling of early fullness, sleepiness, and forgetfulness even before treatment for cancer.

Nutrition during cancer treatment

Many patients experience loss of appetite or difficulties eating during cancer treatment. Despite that, eating well remains a crucial part of treatment. Certain food choices can minimize discomfort, help protect and support the immune system, and aid in recovery. Do not hesitate to ask for nutritional advice during treatment. Registered dieticians and oncology team members at Beaumont can suggest practical strategies and recommend foods that will meet individual nutritional needs.

Clear Liquids and Full Liquids

Sometimes a liquid diet becomes necessary when dealing with the side effects of cancer treatment. Clear liquid diets should only be used for a short time, as they are not nutritionally complete. Full liquids provide more calories, nutrients and protein. Patients and caregivers can ask physicians or registered dieticians at Beaumont to recommend appropriate liquids until a solid diet is appropriate. 

What are clear liquids and full liquids?

If you experience nutritional side effects during your cancer treatment, you will need to consider the different kinds of liquids that you may use for nourishment, to quench your thirst, or settle your stomach. Clear liquids are helpful for many of the side effects of cancer. Generally speaking, clear liquids are liquids that are easy to see through and to pour. A clear liquid diet is not nutritionally adequate and should only be followed for a short period of time to help control symptoms from cancer treatment side effects. If you are experiencing symptoms that will not allow you to consume anything more than clear liquids, talk to your physician or registered dietitian for recommendations. Full liquids have more calories, protein, and nutrients so they can be used to help meet your daily calorie and protein requirements. Full liquids include those that are easy to pour and/or can be sucked through a straw. Some liquids are considered both clear and full.

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) provides the following list of clear liquids:

  • bouillon
  • clear, fat-free broth
  • clear carbonated beverages
  • consommé
  • apple/cranberry/grape juice
  • fruit ices without fruit pieces
  • fruit ices without milk
  • fruit punch
  • honey
  • jelly
  • plain gelatin dessert
  • Popsicles®
  • sports drinks
  • strained citrus juice
  • strained lemonade/limeade
  • strained vegetable broth
  • tea
  • water

Full liquids include the following:

  • all fruit juices and nectar
  • ice milk
  • small amounts of strained meat
  • butter/cream/oil/margarine
  • carbonated beverages
  • cheese soup
  • coffee/tea with milk or cream
  • fresh or frozen plain yogurt
  • fruit drinks
  • fruit punch
  • honey/jelly/syrup
  • liquid supplements
  • milk, all types
  • milkshake
  • pasteurized eggnog
  • plain cornstarch pudding
  • plain gelatin desserts
  • potatoes pureed in soup
  • refined/strained cooked cereal in broth or gelatin
  • smooth ice cream
  • soft or baked custard
  • strained lemonade/limeade
  • strained or blenderized soup
  • thin fruit purees
  • tomato juice
  • tomato puree for cream soup
  • vegetable juice