Why cancer and cancer treatment can affect your appetite – and practical tips to help with this
When you have been diagnosed with cancer, especially when you are having treatment such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy, eating – and eating well – can become a challenge. Eating well, however, is important for your general health and can help you at every stage of your treatment.
This guide explains what to expect if you are having treatment that might affect your appetite. You’ll also find practical tips shared by members of the Living Better With cancer community – people like you, who also found it hard to enjoy their food but who have found ways to eat well and live better.
In this guide:
Why is it hard to eat well when you have cancer?
Little or no appetite
Living with cancer and cancer treatment often means that your appetite changes – you want to eat less; you feel full after eating just a small amount, or you might lose your appetite completely.
A busy timetable of hospital visits involves upheavals in your daily routine and can be tiring. You may not feel like planning meals or cooking. Even if you want to cook, it can be hard to work out what foods are best for you at different stages of your treatment.
When you don’t eat enough or you don’t eat well, you can lose weight and muscle tone and this too can make you tired and drain your energy.
If you are recovering from surgery, you are bound to be less active and may find that you don’t have much appetite. Once you are up and about again, your appetite should start to come back to normal.
A large percentage of people having chemotherapy will have to cope with nausea and vomiting. Your GP can prescribe something to help with this but you may still find it hard to eat well.
The drugs used in chemotherapy can alter your sense of taste: foods that you once enjoyed can taste bland or leave a metallic taste. These changes can go on for up to a month after you stop treatment.
Our mouth and throat cells change very quickly so are more likely to be affected by chemotherapy. This can lead to something called mucositis – mouth sores, ulcers, swelling and pain, any or all of which can make it difficult to eat.
A tumour in or close to your mouth, and the radiotherapy used to treat it, can affect your taste buds.
Daily radiotherapy sessions can last for up to eight weeks. On top of the journeys to and from hospital this can drain your energy, so you might feel too tired to prepare a meal or to eat when you get home.
Helping when you’ve lost your appetite
“Sometimes I find it tricky to fit in time for a proper meal especially when I’m driving to all the appointments. I started buying bitesize varieties of foods and keep them in the car so I can eat on the go if I need to.” Clair, Live Better With community member.
There are some excellent products that can help to ensure that you get the nourishment you need, day by day:
These can help if you find it hard to eat three meals a day and, if you are losing weight, they are a quick and easy way to top up calorie levels.
Ideal for a tasty energy boost at any time of the day. Keep them in your pocket, in your bag, in the car, and at home, so that you always have one handy.
Vitamin and mineral supplements
These can help if you are worried about getting the essential vitamins and minerals that you need because you are eating less or not as well as you should. But always check with your GP or the hospital first to make sure that you choose the right supplements and avoid any that might not be suitable for you.
Helping with nausea and sickness
“Ginger for nausea – you can try biscuits, sweets, tea, chews or even raw!” Jean, Live Better With community member.
As well as taking any anti-sickness medication your doctor has prescribed, try one or more of these proven ways that can help you to stop feeling sick – so that you can enjoy your food again:
Anti-nausea wrist bands
These work in the same way as acupuncture and use acupressure points on your wrist to help reduce nausea.
A traditional drug-free way of reducing nausea and sickness and something you can enjoy in so many different ways as well as in cooking.
Other anti-sickness remedies
These come in many forms, from aromatherapy oils, such as peppermint, which you inhale, to tasty sweets containing special blends of natural products – all designed to ease that queasy feeling.
“I can’t explain just how much the Feeling Sick Kit by Live Better has helped me! If chemo is making you sick, try these!!” Mark, Live Better With community member.
Helping with taste changes
“For me, sucking pineapple helped get rid of the metallic taste. It was also an easy way to consume some calories.” Alastair, Live Better With community member.
This is a good time to try out new ingredients, flavours and recipes – to find things that you can enjoy. Herbs, spices and flavoured oils are a safe and natural way to give an extra zing to meals.
If you are struggling with a metallic taste, go for meals using plant-based proteins, such as lentils or beans, instead of red meat. You can also try one of these:
Swap your metal cutlery for bamboo – it really can make a difference and leaves no aftertaste.
Many people with cancer find that sucking one of these before or after a meal can help; try strong mints or lemon bonbons. They work by fooling your taste buds!
A great way to find dishes that are packed full of flavour. There are cookbooks specially for people with cancer; you’ll find advice and information on eating well, plus really tempting recipes that, as well as being good for you can help with particular problems.
“The cutlery is well made and durable. Most importantly, it did help to rid me of the metallic taste I had.” Paul, Live Better With community member.
Helping with mouth problems
“If you’re suffering dry mouth try chewing juicy chewing gum as this helps to moisten the mouth and increase saliva.” Ellie, Live Better With community member.
The best way to avoid mouth problems such as sores and ulcers is to tackle them as soon as they appear. This helps you to have a pain-free mouth, so that you can eat comfortably and enjoy your food.
Use a special gel as soon as you have any mouth problems. This provides a protective coating that soothes and heals your mouth lining.
Keep your mouth clean and reduce the risk of infection with a cleansing mouthwash. Medicated mouthwashes, with a special numbing ingredient, can help ease mouth pain.
Keeping your teeth and gums clean reduces the risk of infection and helps to prevent painful abscesses or infected oral ulcers. It’s a good idea to see your dentist for advice on oral hygiene at different stages of your treatment – and don’t neglect those regular dental check-ups! Please note, if you're receiving treatment it's important to check with your doctor first before vising a dentist as there may be a risk of infection.
“I had a dry mouth for lots of reasons: radiation damaging my salivary glands, drug side effects, not drinking enough, and breathing through my mouth. This mouthwash moisturised my mouth and the effects lasted for hours afterwards.” Member of the Live Better With community.
Eating better – eating well
“Don’t skip meals – you need to eat to keep your energy levels and mood up and you can’t do that on an empty stomach.” Charlie, Live Better With community member.
Here are some suggestions to help you prepare and cook simple but delicious healthy meals, without spending hours in the kitchen:
Blenders and juicers
These are great time savers and excellent way to make sure you get your recommended five (or more) daily portions of fruit and vegetables. Use a blender to chop vegetables and make smooth, creamy soups that are easier to eat than chunkier versions. Use a juicer to make fruit smoothies and juices full of flavour.
Look for cookbooks that emphasise healthy eating, such as the typical Mediterranean diet, as these have many quick, simple recipes using ingredients that are very good for you such as oily fish, nuts, fresh fruits and vegetables, and salads.
Weekly fruit and vegetable boxes
Another great time and energy saver. Many weekly fruit and vegetable subscription box companies also offer other items such as organic products, eggs, cheese and milk, as well as free recipe recommendations. Weekly boxes mean fewer tiring trips to the supermarket, no unnecessary packaging, and you’ll benefit from having fresh, local, seasonal ingredients delivered to your door.
“I found that taking control of my wellness through my diet was a very important part of taking control of my treatment. The Anticancer book by Dr. Schreiber was very helpful in this process.” Member of the Live Better With community.
Share your tips
We’d love to hear about your tips for eating better with cancer, as they could help other people like you. Share your tips with the Live Better With cancer community here.