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Tips for cancer patients: You can enjoy holiday meals and parties during treatment

Holiday meals
Cancer patients struggling with symptoms of their disease or the side effects of treatment can enjoy traditional holiday meals by following a few do’s and don’ts.

The holidays are just around the corner, and food will likely be at the center of your celebrations. This may mean looking forward to comfort foods like turkey, dressing and gravy. But these gatherings may also be challenging for someone going through cancer treatment.

The thought of being around family, friends and food may be overwhelming for several reasons. Gatherings may increase stress, as well as the risk of infections, especially COVID-19 or the flu. And cancer patients may also be struggling with symptoms of their disease or the side effects of treatment that may make some foods less appealing. 

Still, there may be opportunities to enjoy traditional holiday meals by following a few do’s and don’ts and making some common-sense decisions. For instance:

  • Try to avoid or limit alcohol and caffeine.
  • Consider turning to some of the comfort foods of the season, such turkey, green beans, sweet potato or pumpkin. These holiday staples are healthy, relatively mild and easy to digest.
  • Try fruit or fruit cobblers for desserts. Steer clear of desserts high in sugar and low in nutrients.
  • Instead of alcoholic beverages, try mocktails made with fruit juices, sparkling water, teas and herbs and spices.

If these options aren’t part of your normal holiday traditions, your family and friends may be happy to start new traditions with you. And they may also be more than willing to help cater to your dietary needs this holiday season by making or bringing your favorite food items. Let them know whether you have special preferences or if your food tolerances have changed. If you’re not comfortable talking to others about your special needs, bring your own dish so you can be certain you can enjoy something if you find few other options.

To help patients better navigate holiday meals and parties, I reached out to supportive care staff at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) and to the experts at Nutrimedy, the digital services provider for CTCA®. Nutrimedy offers a variety of online services for cancer patients, family and caregivers, including personalized nutrition plans and services designed to help patients better navigate their cancer journey. Together, the experts at Nutrimedy and on our supportive care team helped me develop these nutrition tips, which may be helpful for those dealing with specific symptoms or treatment-related side effects, including:

These tips are intended to help you get the nutrients you need, which is a critical part of healing and fighting through disease and treatments.

Nutritional support is one of many supportive care services offered to cancer patients at CTCA. To learn more about integrative care services and how they can be used to help patients manage cancer-related side effects and improve their quality of life call us or chat online with a member of our team.

Decreased appetite

If your appetite has waned since starting treatment, aim for smaller, more frequent meals. Even if you don’t feel like eating, it’s important to get some nutrients here or there and to slowly sip on fluids throughout the day. Make yourself a small plate with your favorite appetizers so you can nibble a little on the foods you love. If you’re not dealing with additional side effects, try foods high in calories and protein, so if you become full too quickly, you’re still able to make those calories count to support your energy and prevent weight loss. Examples include lean meats, such as skinless turkey, as well as beans or bean spreads and dips like hummus, nut butters, and avocado or guacamole. Most desserts are typically low in nutrients and protein. But a small serving of a pumpkin dessert or cheesecake may do the trick.

Get one-on-one nutritional advice from a registered dietitian.

Nausea

Patients with nausea face a balancing act of not eating too little or too much, since both may make nausea worse. Stick with blander foods such as bread, potatoes, noodles, crackers, soups, vegetables and soft, tender meats that are not heavily sauced or seasoned. Limit or avoid greasy, fried and high-fat foods that may make the nausea worse. Ginger may help ease the discomfort, so consider bringing your own ginger tea, gum, chews or cookies.

While staying hydrated is also important, you may find that you can better tolerate liquids by drinking them between meals rather than with meals. If your medical oncologist has prescribed anti-nausea medications, make sure to bring them with you and take them as directed.

Certain smells may trigger nausea, so try wearing a scratch-and-sniff, scented sticker, bring your own scented mist or a roll-on essential oil, such as lavender or peppermint, that may help reduce unwanted smells from certain foods and drinks.

Taste changes

Sometimes during cancer treatment, your favorite foods may not taste quite the same. In fact, in some cases, they may taste much different. Taste changes can vary from being too bland to too salty/sweet, spicy or even metallic. Before eating, try rinsing your mouth with water or a rinse made with water, baking soda and salt to help clear your palate. Add extra spices, herbs or condiments that may help bring out the taste of foods. If you struggle with a metallic taste, eat with plastic utensils instead of silverware. Bring your favorite sauce and/or beverage with you so that you can also eat and wash down food with something you know you can enjoy.

Learn how you can sign up for personalized nutrition and wellness services.

Diarrhea

Chemotherapy drugs are designed to kill fast-growing cells, which include cancer cells. But they also kill or damage normal cells in the digestive tract, which may result in diarrhea. To help manage this issue, avoid caffeine, spicy foods and fatty/greasy or fried foods.

Also stick with foods with soluble fiber instead of insoluble fiber. What’s the difference?

Soluble fiber dissolves in water and includes plant pectin and gums. When this fiber dissolves, it forms a gel that helps with digestion and bowel movements. One tip: Mix a spoonful of soluble fiber in a glass of water and let it sit. After a few minutes, it’ll begin to thicken and become gelatinous. Examples of foods with soluble fiber include barley, oats, sweet potatoes, citrus fruits, bananas, strawberries, beans, lentils and green beans.

Insoluble fiber doesn’t dissolve in water. This type of fiber also is good for digestion and promotes regularity, but it may make diarrhea worse. Insoluble fiber can be found in most raw vegetables and some whole grains, including whole wheat.

Make sure to stay well-hydrated and sip on fluids between meals. Bring a sports drink or electrolyte beverage or tablet to add to water to help keep you hydrated and your electrolytes balanced. If your medical oncologist has prescribed anti-diarrhea medications, make sure to take them as directed and time them well before eating.

Get a personalized nutrition plan tailored to your genetic profile.

Mucositis (mouth sores)

Mucositis, a common side effect of chemotherapy or radiation therapy, develops when the cells lining the mouth become damaged from treatment. This may cause painful sores to form inside the mouth.

Citrus sauces and highly acidic foods like oranges, tomatoes and lemons or limes may cause burning and discomfort in patients with mucositis. Also avoid spicy foods, since they may also cause burning.

Instead, try soft foods and cooled-down soups that don’t require a lot of chewing. Keep your mouth moist, and drink plenty of fluids. Try sucking on frozen fruits like grapes, melon, peach slices or ice chips, and bring a lip moisturizer with vitamin E, which may help with healing.

You also may want to bring a nutritional shake so if you can’t eat or tolerate a lot of the foods available at your holiday meal, you’re still able to get the calories and protein you need. Talk to your medical oncologist about specialized mouth washes that may also ease the pain and help you heal.

Nutritional support is one of many supportive care services offered to cancer patients at CTCA. To learn more about integrative care services and how they can be used to help patients manage cancer-related side effects and improve their quality of life call us or chat online with a member of our team.