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The Importance of Good Nutrition During and After Cancer Treatment

In this article, UAB Medicine’s Laura Rutledge, MA, RDN, a board-certified specialist in oncology nutrition (CSO), answers questions and shares insight on proper eating during and following cancer treatment.

Nutrition is a vitally important yet often overlooked part of cancer treatment. Eating well while you are undergoing therapy can help you feel better, have more energy, tolerate treatment-related side effects better, and recover and heal faster after surgery. Good nutrition after treatment may help decrease the risk of cancer recurrence and improve your overall health. Below are answers to some common questions I receive about nutrition and cancer that may help you as you go through this journey.

I’m undergoing cancer treatment and just don’t feel hungry. Is this normal?

Poor appetite is a common complaint I hear from patients. It can result from the cancer itself, treatment, or even emotions and stress from dealing with cancer.

Food doesn’t taste good right now. Are there any foods to help with taste changes?

It is discouraging when foods don’t taste like we remember or think they should taste. Try foods other than what you normally eat, or prepare them in a different way – with different seasonings, for example. Marinate meat, chicken, and fish before cooking. If you have a metallic taste in your mouth, use plastic utensils instead of metal ones. Add lemon juice, ginger, or mint to offset a bad taste, and rinse your mouth with a mixture of baking soda and water before meals.

I’m feeling nauseated and don’t want to eat anything. How can I get the nutrition I need?

Nausea can be caused by cancer treatment or the cancer itself. Be sure to talk with your health care team if you are experiencing nausea or if it is not well-controlled. Anti-nausea medications can be effective if used properly. Limit your intake of high-fat foods such as fried dishes and rich sauces and gravy when nauseated, as these take longer to pass through the stomach. Instead, choose lower fat foods that are at room temperature or cold, since the smell of hot foods may trigger nausea. Try sips of ginger ale, dried ginger, or peppermint candies to help settle your stomach.

Are there any vitamin or mineral supplements I should be taking?

I always recommend food first. Our bodies absorb vitamins and minerals better from food than from a supplement. Food also offers valuable substances such as fiber, antioxidants, and phytochemicals (chemicals produced by plants) that are not found in supplements. If you aren’t eating a variety of foods, ask your health care team if you should take a vitamin and mineral supplement. Taking large doses of supplements, especially antioxidant supplements, are not normally recommended while undergoing chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

I’m done with treatment! What can I do to help reduce my risk of the cancer coming back?

Research suggests that eating a healthy diet, being physically active, and maintaining a healthy body weight may improve your chances of survival and reduce the risk of cancer recurrence. These lifestyle habits also may help reduce your risk for other conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes.

Learn more about cancer services as UAB Medicine.