Managing Eating Problems During Cancer Treatment

‘I just can’t eat!’

Understanding common eating problems and learning how to manage them can help patients stay healthy during cancer treatment.

Undergoing treatment for cancer can result in side effects that affect your eating, drinking and digestion. However, it is crucial that you get enough nutrients and calories during cancer treatment, as this will aid in your recovery.

It is, therefore, important to address any problems you face in eating and drinking as early as you can. Let your healthcare team know immediately when eating problems arise or become worse, so that they can suggest medical and nutritional options as soon as possible – don’t wait until you feel weak or have lost too much weight.

As treatment can affect each person differently, ask your doctor about possible eating problems you will most likely face even before you start treatment. Your doctor can then refer you to a dietitian who can help you choose the right foods and drinks to take, as well as give you advice on planning your meals during and after your treatment.

These are some common eating problems that you can look out for, and some tips on how you can cope with them:

‘I’ve got no appetite’

It is common to lose your appetite or have a poor appetite for food when you are undergoing treatment. Cancer-related fatigue and other side effects can also affect your appetite.

What you can do:

  • Plan daily menus ahead of time.
  • Get help with meal preparation.
  • Eat smaller meals, but more frequently.
  • Pack snacks to keep on hand at all times.
  • Eat with a family member or friend.

‘I feel like vomiting’

A certain smell or taste, pain, anxiety or sudden movement may cause nausea.

What you can do:

  • Sip fluids slowly throughout the day. Try clear liquids such as barley water, ginger tea, chicken or vegetable broth.
  • Avoid fried, greasy, spicy or very sweet foods.
  • Take anti-nausea medicine at the first hint of nausea. This can help prevent vomiting.

‘Everything tastes weird’

Radiation therapy and chemotherapy can affect your taste buds, especially if you suffer from a dry mouth, nausea or vomiting. You may also find your preferences changing from day to day.

What you can do:

  • Avoid foods with taste or smell that bother you.
  • Use plastic utensils if you get a metallic taste in your mouth.
  • Try eating food at different temperatures. Some room-temperature or frozen foods may taste better than hot foods.
  • Keep your mouth clean by rinsing and brushing. This may help foods taste better.
  • If red meat tastes bitter, substitute it with chicken, fish, eggs or cheese.

‘I’ve got mouth sores’

A common side effect of chemotherapy, mouth sores can make it difficult for you to chew or swallow.

What you can do:

  • Avoid salty, sour, spicy, dry, crunchy or rough foods.
  • Try smooth, creamy, moist or soft foods.
  • Use a drinking straw to keep liquids away from the sores.
  • Cut food into small pieces.
  • Maximise caloric and protein intake with fortified nutritional supplements.

‘I feel constipated’

Bowel movements can become difficult or less frequent.

What you can do:

  • Drink at least eight cups of fluids every day. This can include water, juices and clear liquids.
  • Boost your fibre intake by eating more fruits, vegetables and wholegrain foods.
  • Keep active physically; it may help to stimulate bowel movements.
  • Seek your doctor’s advice. He may recommend using a laxative if constipation persists.

‘I’ve got diarrhoea’

Bowel movements may also be loose and watery.

What you can do:

  • Avoid foods that are high in fat, fibre or caffeine, and dairy products.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration.
  • Include broth, soup, electrolyte drinks, bananas or canned fruits to help replace salt and potassium loss from diarrhoea.
  • Avoid cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage.

Plan your meals

Here’s some general guidelines to help you plan your meals before and during cancer treatment:


  • Start eating well even before you start treatment. Better nutrition may help you bear the treatment better and even minimise the side effects.
  • Make nutritious stock and freeze it in small portions. You can eat them later if that is all you can stomach.
  • Make some dishes ahead of time. Soups and stews keep well, are easy to eat, and can be frozen.
  • Stock up on healthy snacks. You can snack before bedtime, when it won’t affect your appetite for the next meal.


  • If you have no appetite, just eat as and when you feel like it. If all you can eat is a couple of bites, so be it. Try smaller but frequent meals.
  • Stay hydrated during treatment. But don’t drink too much liquids, especially during a meal, as it can lead to bloating and indigestion. Hydrate between meals instead.
  • Make your plate look appetising with lots of colours. Or try serving your food on a smaller plate.
  • Turn mealtime into a social activity. You may be able to eat more when you dine with family or friends.
  • Try to eat foods that are high in nutrients.
  • If you get a bitter or metallic taste in your mouth, use a plastic or wooden spoon or fork instead of metal ones. Also, cook using heatproof glassware instead of metal pots and pans.

Should you eat organic food?

Many are in favour of organic produce as they are grown without pesticides and chemicals. Organic meat and poultry are also hormone-free – that is, no growth hormones are used to make the animals grow bigger or faster.

However, organic food is usually a lot more expensive. Also, there is still insufficient conclusive evidence that eating organic food will reduce the risk of cancer.

Ultimately, what is more important is that patients focus on eating healthy, balanced meals during and after treatment.

POSTED IN Nutrition
TAGS cancer diet & nutrition, common side effects of cancer treatment, healthy food & cooking