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Patient Tips: Eat, Drink & Be Merry This Holiday Season

Posted on December 12, 2013

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‘Tis the season for eating. From office parties to family dinners to get-togethers with friends, the holidays are a festive time of year celebrated with food and drink. But while everyone else is feeling merry and bright, you may be feeling both emotionally and physically drained from your cancer treatment, especially if you’re suffering from side effects interfering with your appetite and ability to eat.

Don’t be discouraged. Caryn Huneke from Meals to Heal has some great tips to help you cope with your side effects and manage all of the wining and dining you deserve this holiday season.

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Caryn Huneke, Dietetic Intern at Meals to Heal.

Fatigue 

This is the most common side effect for patients, caused by the cancer itself or treatment. Eating regularly and getting exercise can help ease fatigue, so try these ideas for keeping up your food and beverage intake:

  • Drink plenty of fluids; dehydration can make fatigue worse. Aim for at least 8 cups of hydrating fluids each day (unless given other medical instruction), such as water, clear juices, sports drinks, broth or weak tea
  • Prepare food when you’re feeling strongest and freeze leftovers in meal-size portions for easy access later when you’re more tired
  • Keep ready-to-eat foods like fruits and vegetables on hand
  • Consider meal delivery services like Meals to Heal (home delivery of meals designed for cancer patients) or Meals on Wheels (home-delivered meals to those in need)

Appetite Loss

People with cancer often experience a drop in appetite that can lead to weight loss and malnutrition, slowing the body’s ability to heal. Try these suggestions to help improve your appetite and increase your intake of calories and protein:

  • Eat five or six smaller meals per day
  • Eat the largest meal when you are hungriest
  • Start with high-protein foods while your appetite is strongest
  • Keep your favorite high-calorie foods and drinks nearby
  • Be as physically active as possible to help stimulate your appetite

Nausea and Vomiting

Chemotherapy or radiation to the abdomen or brain can cause nausea and vomiting. Both make it even more difficult to eat or drink, but these tips may help with prevention and management of these side effects:

  • Eat smaller amounts of food more often throughout the day so as to not overwhelm your body or digestive system
  • Eat foods and sip clear liquids at room temperature or cooler for easier tolerance
  • Avoid high-fat, greasy, spicy, or overly sweet foods and foods with strong odors
  • Sip on beverages in between meals and snacks, rather than while eating
  • Eat sitting up and keep your head raised for about an hour after eating
  • Refrain from eating or drinking until vomiting is controlled; then resume drinking small amounts of clear liquids or nibbling on plain foods

Diarrhea

Diarrhea can be caused by cancer itself, radiation to the abdomen or pelvis or certain chemotherapy agents and medicines. Try these on how to manage diarrhea:

  • Eat smaller portions of food more frequently throughout the day
  • Drink lots of hydrating liquids or oral rehydration solutions (available OTC at most pharmacies)
  • Eat small amounts of soft, bland foods, especially those high in water-soluble fiber like bananas, white rice, applesauce and white toast
  • Decrease insoluble fiber intake by avoiding foods like nuts, seeds, raw vegetables and fruits and whole grains

Constipation

Constipation can also be caused by cancer itself or by certain medicines used to treat cancer or manage pain. If you’re often suffering from constipation your healthcare team may need to design an individualized bowel regimen for you, but in the meantime, try these ideas:

  • Increase dietary fiber intake by eating more whole grains, fresh and cooked vegetables, fresh and dried fruits, and foods containing peels, nuts and seeds
  • Drink more healthy beverages to keep your GI system moving, like water, prune juice, warm juices, decaffeinated teas and hot lemonade
  • Get as much exercise as you are able to handle

Changes in Taste and Smell

Sensory changes are common for those undergoing and recovering from cancer treatment. They may affect your desire to eat or drink; try these tips for managing these changes:

  • Choose foods that appeal to you. Typically, moist and naturally sweet foods such as frozen melon balls, grapes or oranges are appetizing, but some prefer tart foods and beverages
  • Eat foods at a cooler temperature rather than hotter, as they have less aroma and taste
  • Use marinades and spices to mask unsavory flavors and tastes
  • Often red meat becomes unappealing, so try other protein sources like poultry, fish, beans, nut butters or eggs
  • Add a bit of sugar if your foods taste bitter or salty
  • Maintain good oral care by brushing your teeth and tongue regularly, especially before eating. Also rinse your mouth several times a day with an alcohol-free mouth rinse or 1-2 ounces of a DIY solution (1 quart of water with 1 teaspoon of salt and 1 teaspoon of baking soda)

Sore Mouth or Throat

Many chemotherapy agents and radiation therapies to the mouth and throat cause inflammation of the mucus membranes and mouth sores. This mucositis makes it difficult to eat and swallow, but these recommendations may help alleviate the pain:

  • Eat soft, moist foods with extra sauces, dressings or gravies
  • Avoid dry, coarse or rough foods, as well as alcohol, citrus, caffeine, vinegar, spicy foods and acidic foods
  • Try different temperatures of foods to see what is the most soothing for you (often hot or even warm foods can be irritating)
  • Drink lots of liquids, particularly warm or cool milk-based beverages, non-acidic fruit drinks, “flat” carbonated drinks and cream or broth-based soups
  • Rinse your mouth several times a day with the DIY solution described above

Honesty is the Best Policy

Above all else, be honest with yourself and your loved ones about what you do and do not want. Friends and family may try to deliver some holiday cheer by preparing your “favorite foods,” unaware of the toll that cancer treatment is taking on your appetite and capacity to eat. However well intentioned, these kind gestures may put undue pressure on you. Try to be open about your changing food and beverage preferences and, of course, have a happy and healthy holiday season.

Caryn Huneke is a Dietetic Intern at Meals to Heal. She is completing her dietetic internship and graduate degree in Nutrition Education at Teachers College, Columbia University to become a Registered Dietitian.

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