This is the third in a three-part Q&A series on nutrition with Kristin Addona, an oncology registered dietitian at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center.
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Question: What are some of the issues unique to patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiation?
Answer: Cancer treatments can damage healthy cells as well as the cancer cells. This damage can cause side effects that may make eating difficult: appetite loss, weight loss, changes in taste or smell, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, gas, sore throat or difficulty swallowing, and pain. Not every patient experiences every eating problem; it will vary depending on the person and the treatment, and some patients do not have any problems.
Q.:What is the most important thing for patients to be aware of in terms of their diet? Why? How does that differ from patients not undergoing treatment?
A.: The key to eating when undergoing treatment is to keep up your strength during the process. This can be challenging if you experience symptoms that prevent adequate nutrition. The priority should be on choosing the right foods to manage the symptoms so to improve nutrition status and prevent weight loss. Often we encourage being more liberal with food choices for this time period. For example, if the patient was following a heart healthy diet prior to treatment, it would be best to include any food that is appealing at the moment, even if the food choice is higher in fat.
Q.: How effective is following specific dietary guidelines in helping relieve symptoms?
A.: It is very helpful. A registered dietitian can work with patients to give tips and strategies to manage these eating problems.
Q.: What specifically should they eat? Avoid?
A.: This depends on what symptoms the patient is experiencing. In general, though, the primary focus is to get the most out of the foods the patient is eating and to have foods available at all times.
- Focus on calories and protein. Choose nutrient-rich foods like, nuts, meats, and eggs over vegetables and broth-based soups.
- Eat when you have the biggest appetite. Some patient’s appetites decrease as the day progresses. So if your appetite is largest in the morning, take advantage and eat a bigger breakfast!
- Keep your kitchen filled with foods that are appealing so they are easily accessible.
- Make favorite meals ahead of time and freeze so they are ready to eat.
- Ask your friends and family to help with shopping and cooking during treatment.
- Ask your medical team about oral supplements if you are experiencing a decreased appetite.