Perk Up Your Appetite During Cancer Treatment

Here is some advice on how to nourish yourself during radiation therapy.

At a dinner table, one person extends their plate as another person serves salad.

Surprisingly simple solutions can help you enjoy eating even when your appetite is waning.

Loss of appetite is an all-too-common side effect for many people whose cancer is being treated with radiation therapy. But eating is important because it can help your body rebuild healthy cells.

Weight loss is particularly common among people who have had radiation to the head and neck area. Other problems include redness, dryness and irritation of the mouth, difficulty in swallowing, nausea and changes in how foods taste.
Below are tips from radiation oncologist Lynn Wilson, MD, vice chair of Yale Medicine Therapeutic Radiology, to help stimulate a poor appetite and, we hope, make mealtime more enjoyable as you go through treatment.

  • Eat when you are hungry, even if it is not mealtime.
  • Prepare several small meals during the day, rather than three large ones.
  • Use soft lighting, quiet music, brightly colored food and table settings to pique your interest in dining.
  • Vary your diet and try new recipes.
  • If you enjoy company while eating, try to have meals with family or friends, or turn on the radio or television.
  • Ask your doctor or nurse whether you can have a glass of wine or beer with your meal to increase your appetite (and your calorie intake). Note, though, that some people aren’t able to drink alcohol because it may worsen the side effects of treatment. This may be especially true if you are receiving radiation therapy for cancer of the head or neck.
  • When you feel up to it, make some simple meals in batches and freeze them to simplify meal planning.
  • Keep healthy snacks close by for nibbling when you get the urge for something tasty.
  • If other people offer to cook for you, let them. Don't be shy about telling them what you'd like to eat.
  • If you live alone, you might want to arrange for Meals on Wheels to bring food to you. Ask your doctor, nurse, local American Cancer Society office, or Cancer Information Service about services available to you in your community.

Calorie counts during cancer treatment

If you are able to eat only small amounts of food, here are some ideas to help increase your caloric intake:

  • Add butter or margarine, if you like the flavor.
  • Mix canned cream soups with milk or half-and-half, rather than water.
  • Drink eggnog, milkshakes, or prepared liquid supplements between meals—all can deliver the calories you need to maintain weight.
  • Add cream sauce or melted cheese to your favorite vegetables.
  • Some people find they can handle large amounts of liquids even when they don't feel like eating solid foods. If this is the case for you, try to get the most from each glassful by having drinks enriched with powdered milk, yogurt, honey or prepared liquid supplements.

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