The effects of cancer therapy can be draining
on the body and spirit. Side effects like
diminished taste sensation and upset stomach
affect one’s ability to enjoy food and stay
nourished. Dietary changes throw off
physical and emotional balance. With
proper thought and safe experimentation,
nutritional continuity can be enhanced.
Caregivers looking for additional help with
nutrition can ask the primary care doctor or
oncologist to refer them to a registered
dietician. Cancer specialists have
excellent resources and may be able to locate a
dietician who specializes in nutrition for
Nutritional techniques that work for one
individual experiencing a given type of cancer
may be less effective for someone whose cancer
is in the same location, but has spread to other
areas. The reverse may be true also, as
everyone has different food likes and dislikes.
A willingness and tolerance to adapting diet
changes over the course of therapy lies with
both loved one and caregiver. Reducing the
stress factor of meal preparation and selection
is a primary goal, along with providing
ANATOMY IS A BIG FACTOR
Head and neck surgeries, bowel resections and
any removal of organs will affect the body’s
ability to process foods. The stress the
body undergoes during surgery (and before, when
it is out of balance) requires healing time and
nutritional support. In the case of part
of the bowel being removed, there is less area
and thus less time for the intestinal tract to
process the food taken in. This is true
for the stomach and any surgery involving the
digestive tract. Proper chewing of food,
slow and methodical, until the food has been
“ground down” is a way of getting around the
But chewing and swallowing can be affected by
cancer therapy, too. Smoothies are
often recommended to help load up on calories
(keeping weight and energy stable).
Minimal “work” is involved to consume a
smoothie, and a variety of types can be created,
with or without protein powders.
When snacking outside of the house, ask about
smoothies (or their variations, in juice and
coffee bars) that can have protein added to
them. Sugar contents may be higher from
one establishment to another, but adding protein
will offset the high carbohydrates, as will
choosing an appropriate size. Nutritional
statements are usually available, and one need
only ask for one or check online for each
company’s “facts on snacks.”
Smoothies provide hydration, especially when
mixed with ice (as they usually are). They
also have the ingredients processed sufficiently
that they may digest better.
Individuals with head and neck challenges can
find chewing a difficult task. Digestion
does start in the mouth, where enzymes are
released to start absorbing nutrients.
Reducing the workload reduces the potential to
shy away from food, because it’s just too hard
to deal with.
NUTRITIONAL SUPPLEMENTS ARE AN OPTION
Different formulas of nutritional supplement
drinks can be ordered by the physician to round
out the body’s need for a “complete” meal.
These drinks supply the expected vitamins (B
vitamins and C for example), cholesterol and
fats (needed by the nervous system) and even “prebiotics.”
Prebiotics are carbohydrates that cannot be
digested, but encourage the body to produce
bacteria to balance the digestive tract.
Nutritional supplements can be taken alone or
with a meal. While they may taste similar
to a milkshake, sugar content is more controlled
than a fast food shake.
Smoothies and supplement drinks may feel “heavy”
on the stomach and patients may choose to
alternate them with juice. It’s important
to read labels whether you are buying from a
“health food store” or grocery.
Prepackaged drinks may be labeled “organic,” but
may still contain sugar or artificial
sweeteners, or a mixture of juices that dominate
the advertised juice.
Sugar is always a factor, but many juices (such
as cranberry, blueberry and pomegranate) come in
“100% pure” offerings. They contain no
added juices or sweetener. They are
excellent options, especially when dealing with
kidney and bladder infections, related to cancer
therapy or not. These juices come in
concentrates, providing fruity nutrients that
can be taken by the conservative spoonful, or
mixed with water to flush bacteria that sticks
to the lining of the bladder. The “pure”
juices can be more costly than those with apple
or grape juice added, but in the long run they
may be versatile in ways the mixtures can’t be.
Ready to drink juices come in a wide variety,
and both standard grocery and health food stores
have good selections. Select two or three
types and offer a “tasting event” instead of a
full meal, pairing small amounts of juice with
snack sized portions of a meal.
VITAMINS AS “HELPING HANDS”
Vitamin supplements may be beneficial, but
discuss usage with the dietician. Liquid
vitamin supplements may be easier to swallow and
stay down, with less opportunity for reflux.
Pills in general have a tendency to “back up”
the esophagus, often when taken with small
amounts of fluid. Liquid vitamins may not
have an ideal flavor, but manufacturers have
made improvements over the years.
Liquid vitamins can be added to juices that have
their own intense flavor. Pomegranate,
acai berry and cranberry are bold flavors that
mix well with other juices and might mask
Enzymes help the body to digest food and pull
nutrients from the meal. They lighten the
work that the digestive tract has to do, and
some people find they get more out of a meal
when these are taken. Papaya tablets have
been popular for years, and for those who do not
want to eat the fruit itself, they’re a quick
Other types of digestive enzymes are sold in
stores, and while many do the same work, read
the labels to narrow down choices. Find
one that does the trick and stick with it.
A rule of thumb to determine how well it’s
working is how good one feels. There can
be more energy from the same meal taken with
enzymes than when no enzymes are taken.
Time between meals may last longer because the
feeling of satisfaction lasts.
FOODS AND HEALING PORTIONS
If portion size is an issue, “size down” the
serving plate to a less intimidating one.
It may be easier on your loved one to be given a
teacup with soup instead of a bowl, and a
quarter or half sandwich on the teacup’s saucer,
instead of the traditional serving of bowl and
plate. Remind your loved one that “seconds
are always available,” or incorporate psychology
that benefits you both. “I made extra in
case we get hungry later” is one way of leaving
the option open for a later meal, with no guilt
on anyone’s part for making and putting away the
Soup can provide both nutrients and hydration,
and is a good choice if your loved one is having
trouble with small meals. There are many
selections in boxed and canned varieties.
Allow your loved one to have a variety in case
they lose interest in one type.
Bathroom cups are about three ounces and can be
filled with soups that taste good cold.
Served in this fashion, they can be prepped in
advance, allowing your loved one to serve
themselves, retaining independence.
Covered serving ware can fill the need also, but
be sure your loved one can open them by
themselves. If conserving strength is the
priority, opt for the bathroom cups covered in
If your loved one is spending time in bed after
cancer therapy, consider investing in a portable
fridge to keep drinks and snacks in, to allow
them easy access and give you a break from
preparation and serving.
KEEP IT SIMPLE, KEEP YOUR SANITY
Cancer diagnosis is devastating to everyone
involved. The healthcare system has its
imperfections, but with proper navigation, help
can be found. Nutritional consultants,
adjunct therapy like prescribed supplements and
counseling are only a few options that
caregivers can access to make sure their loved
one is receiving what they need.
Make changes as needed, and allow yourself to
adapt to your loved one’s nutritional needs and
food requests. You don’t need to empty the
pantry and start over. Add a few
selections, keeping what works and letting the
rest go. Your natural creativity as a
caregiver will give you strength and ideas to
help your loved one as you both proceed through
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