Eating and digestion with cancer

Many people experience eating problems during or after cancer treatment.

Some eating problems, such as poor appetite or weight loss, may have been symptoms which led to your diagnosis. Some eating problems may be due to the location of the cancer in your body, causing you to feel sick or have poor digestion. Your doctor may try to improve your food intake before treatment starts.

Eating problems can be caused by some cancer treatments. These can be temporary but sometimes last longer. If you have treatment to your mouth, throat, stomach or intestine, it’ll take time to return to a regular eating pattern. Treatment such as radiotherapy to the head and neck area may cause a dry mouth and difficulty swallowing. Chemotherapy and targeted therapies can cause sickness, diarrhoea or constipation, taste changes and soreness to your mouth. You could also be at risk of infection after cancer treatment and your doctor may suggest avoiding foods with harmful bacteria.

Ask your doctor or specialist nurse for advice about how you can cope with eating problems. Your doctor or nurse can refer you to a dietician who will assess your food needs and advise you on which foods are best for you.

Your feelings about eating problems

You may worry that changes in your eating pattern will affect your relationships with your partner, family and friends. You may be anxious about what people think of you or about being rejected. You may feel self-conscious about eating at home or out with family or friends.

Many people find that it helps to talk to someone close to them. If you find it difficult to talk about your feelings with your family, you could speak to your doctor or specialist nurse.

Getting help with meals

You may not always feel well enough to be able to cook food for yourself or others. If you’re the person who usually prepares the meals for your family, it may feel strange to let someone else take charge. Try not to feel guilty about letting someone else do the things you usually do. When you feel better, you can get back into your normal routine.

If you live on your own and need help with cooking or shopping, contact your GP, district nurse or social worker. They may be able to arrange for a home helper, meals on wheels or a local organisation to help you with cooking or shopping.

Caring for someone with eating problems

If you’re the main carer for someone with cancer, it can be upsetting and difficult to know how to deal with the eating problems their cancer or treatments have caused. Mealtimes are often an enjoyable and important part of family and social life. It can be frustrating and worrying when someone you’re caring for can’t eat very much.

People who are very ill often don’t feel like eating. Cancer, treatments and medicines can all affect their appetite. Feeling sick and having diarrhoea or constipation can stop them eating. They may feel too tired to eat, have a sore or dry throat or mouth, or find chewing and swallowing difficult. The amount they can eat may change from day to day and their likes and dislikes may also alter.

You can:

  • take time to ask them what they’d like to eat
  • try to talk openly about their eating problems and the different ways you could both manage it – this can help you both feel more in control of the situation
  • try to give small meals often, whenever the person feels like eating, rather than at set times of the day
  • treat them to their favourite foods at the times when you know their appetite is at its best
  • keep a range of different foods so that you can offer them something at any time of the day – tinned foods and pre-prepared frozen meals can be as good for them as a meal that takes a long time to prepare
  • if they can’t manage solid food, try soft foods such as porridge, bananas, soup, yoghurt or milk-based foods like custard or rice pudding
  • moist food is often easier to cope with, and will help to prevent a dry mouth
  • if someone’s sense of taste or smell has changed, it can sometimes help to serve food cold or at room temperature
  • use plastic cutlery if the person affected by cancer notices a metallic taste in their mouth
  • if the person you’re caring for finds that certain cooking smells make them feel sick, prepare food in a different room if possible and serve food in a well-ventilated room
  • be aware of how energy supplements can be used to add energy to everyday meals and drinks – for example, you could try adding fortified milk to tea or coffee
  • try not to worry if they can’t always eat what you’ve cooked and don’t urge or nag them much, as this can be unhelpful
  • take special care while preparing food when the person you care for may be at risk of infections – the doctors or dietitian at the hospital will be able to advise you about this
  • make sure you have support and take time to care for yourself

Last updated:
03 July 2024

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