Expert Health Articles

Nutrition Before, During and After Cancer Treatment

Nutrition plays a vital role in our body’s function. It is an essential component to everyday life that is often times overlooked, ignored or taken for granted. Nutrition for each individual is different and can vary based on activity level, age, diagnosis and many other factors. Cancer is a diagnosis that can bring on many changes for people. Maintaining nutrition before, during and after cancer treatment can help manage side effects and improve overall outcome.

Everyone starts treatment from a different nutritional standpoint. Some people are malnourished and others are well-nourished. Before treatment, it is important to ensure you are meeting your estimated nutritional needs by eating three meals per day with a good variety of carbohydrates, proteins and fats, along with vitamins and minerals that we get from fruits and vegetables. Eating balanced meals regularly is a good habit to maintain before, during and after cancer treatment. Choosing whole grains, lean proteins, unsaturated fats and fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables are all things that can help improve energy levels and maintain strength in preparation for cancer treatment.  

Lots of people experience side effects from cancer treatment, including (but not limited to) nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and loss of appetite. There are medications that can be helpful in managing side effects, but nutrition can also play a key role in managing the side effects from cancer treatment. If you are experiencing side effects from cancer treatment, it is important to eat smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day (typically four to six smaller meals per day). It is also important to maximize caloric and protein intake when possible by adding condiments to foods that you are able to tolerate. For example, adding peanut butter to toast, adding cheese to scrambled eggs or adding sour cream, cheese and butter to potatoes. Depending on the type of cancer and type of treatment, some people develop difficulty chewing and/or swallowing, in which case it is important to focus on soft, moist foods that require minimal chewing and are easily swallowed. Maintaining nutrition during treatment can be hard at times, but it is important for repairing and rebuilding tissue. If nutrition is lacking, treatment may not be able to be completed or breaks in treatment may be warranted, which can affect the overall success of the treatment.

Once treatment is completed, many people think things go back to “normal” right away. This is not the case for most cancer survivors. There are side effects from cancer treatment that can last up to six to 12 months after the completion of treatment. Most people need to continue eating smaller, more frequent meals and continue with increased calorie, protein and fluid requirements for an extended period of time after treatment. As the body heals, it is encouraged to start slowly adding foods back in that may not otherwise have been tolerated during treatment. As time passes and side effects subside, it is important to eat a balanced diet with a variety of whole grains, vitamins and minerals, lean proteins and unsaturated fats.

High-calorie and high-protein nutritional drinks can be very useful before, during and after cancer treatment, depending on the course of treatment and the side effects experienced. There are a variety of nutritional drink options on the market today, so it is important to follow up with a registered dietitian to determine what drink is appropriate for you. Hydration is also a key factor before, during and after cancer treatment. Staying hydrated can help manage symptoms of cancer treatment and, also, helps your body heal overall.

Marla Stone RD, LD
Oncology Dietitian
The Armes Family Cancer Care Center