Radiation therapy is a common method used to treat cancer because of how effective it is at killing cancer cells. However, as with other cancer treatments, it’s so important to stay as strong and healthy as you can throughout your cancer journey — especially in times when you are receiving radiation treatments.
A good place to start is diet. Generally speaking, the foods you eat influence how well your body functions on a regular basis. It’s the same when you’re a cancer patient. In fact, one of the best things you can do to improve the functionality and healing ability of your body — both during and after treatment ends — is to fuel it properly. Let’s look at what you need to know about nutrition during radiation therapy.
Radiation Therapy and Its Effect On Your Body
It’s not uncommon to experience side effects during cancer treatments, including radiation therapy. Some side effects are general, affecting most patients, while others are more specific. For example, mild fatigue is a side effect that typically affects the majority of those receiving radiation therapy. Potential side effects like stomach issues or difficulty swallowing, however, are considered site-specific, meaning they are the result of radiation therapy being delivered directly to a specific area of the body. Because of this, the nutrition needs can vary somewhat from patient to patient.
Patients who experience side effects often lose their appetite and miss out on getting important nutrients, which can lead to excessive weakness and fatigue. This is why it’s crucial to eat a well-balanced diet while undergoing radiation therapy — even in times when the desire to do so isn’t there. The right foods, such as lean proteins and healthy fats, can make a big difference in providing the body with the nourishment and energy it needs to get through treatment.
Nutrition Tips for Radiation Therapy Patients
Making changes to your diet might seem challenging, but any positive adjustments you make can help you better recover from treatment. Watch this video to learn about common recommendations for eating well during radiation therapy.
Increase Strength With Proteins and Healthy Fats
Your body can greatly benefit from eating a diet rich with protein and healthy fats while undergoing radiation. Protein helps maintain muscle mass and supports tissue healing, while healthy fats help lower inflammation and support cell function. All of this is ideal for someone who needs to stay strong throughout the course of radiation therapy treatment.
To increase your protein consumption, speak with your RO nurse or provider regarding a nutrition consult to determine if foods like eggs, nut butter, dairy products, meat, poultry, and fish are the best fit for you. In regards to fats, be selective, as not all fats are equal. The best fats to choose are unsaturated fats. They can be found in foods such as olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocados, and flax. Out of all the other kinds of fats, these are the healthiest.
Boost Energy With Carbohydrates
If you begin to feel low on energy during your radiation therapy, you can boost it by adding complex carbohydrates (carbs) into your diet. As a general rule, it’s best to avoid processed carbs that don’t offer much nutritional value. Instead, try to get your carbohydrates from healthy sources like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
You may be asked by your doctor to increase your caloric intake while undergoing radiation therapy. This is recommended for a couple of reasons:
Eating more calories provides the body with the energy it needs to support tissue health and regrowth.
A high-calorie diet will help you better maintain an ideal weight during treatment.
It’s important to eat even when you don’t feel like it. To get the most out of your calories, try to find things you like that aren’t processed foods, empty calories from sugar, or fast food, if possible.
Staying hydrated can be a challenge for everyone. However, it can be especially hard if you are experiencing side effects from your radiation treatment, such as difficulty swallowing. If you are treated in an area that affects swallowing your radiation oncologist can prescribe medication to assist with maintaining proper hydration needs.
Still, the more fluids you can get during radiation therapy, the better. Staying hydrated boosts energy, organ function, and healing and combats fatigue. Other than plain water, a few great ways to stay hydrated are juices, broths, sports drinks, and popsicles.
Promote Healing With Vitamin and Mineral Supplements
Certain vitamins and minerals can help your body with healing and support the immune system. While diet alone might be enough when it comes to getting adequate vitamins and minerals, your doctor may recommend some supplements to help increase levels in times when it’s not. Be sure to talk with your doctor before starting any new vitamins or supplements.
Tips for Staying Nourished When You Don’t Feel Like Eating
Sometimes, you might not feel like eating. Here are some tips for getting the nourishment your body needs even when you don’t feel like it.
Eat small, frequent meals. Eating small, frequent meals can help in times your appetite is minimal or if you feel like a big meal just doesn’t sound good to you. Consider keeping snacks on hand, such as in your car or purse, so there’s something to reach for when you do feel hungry.
Use protein powder in smoothies and drinks. Protein powder is a great way to get extra calories and nutrients in. Drinking, rather than eating, your meal can be easier to do when you don’t have much of an appetite.
Incorporate softer foods. Eating can be difficult, especially if you have mouth sores or other side effects caused by radiation delivered to the mouth or throat. Foods like smoothies and broths are softer options that allow you to get the nutrients you need in times when chewing is a challenge.
Share a meal with friends. Eating a meal with friends can boost both your mood and your appetite! Whether you meet up at your home, a restaurant, or the park, the distraction of socializing may help to pull your attention away from the food, allowing you to relax into meal time a little more.
Foods to Avoid During Radiation Therapy
If you experience digestive upset, it’s a good idea to avoid foods that can interfere with digestion and cause you to feel bad. This especially includes spicy foods as they can further exacerbate this side effect. Be sure to also steer clear of any other foods you know typically affect your stomach.
Some general foods that should be avoided during radiation include:
Saturated fats and trans fats
Your doctor or nutrition counselor can also provide you with a more detailed list of foods to avoid. If there are any foods that you want to eat but you’re unsure about, don’t hesitate to ask them for guidance.
Additional Tips for Site-Specific Radiation Treatment
Specific challenges may arise based on the area of the body that received radiation. The following suggestions could be helpful if you are receiving radiotherapy to the head and neck region or to the pelvic area.
Eating Tips for Head and Neck Cancer Radiation
Radiation given to treat head and neck cancers may make it hard to eat. You might experience side effects such as dry mouth, sores, nausea, loss of taste or a metallic taste, or difficulty chewing and swallowing. To help these uncomfortable side effects, consider:
Eating soft, bland foods that won’t irritate the mouth.
Moistening foods with sauces or gravies.
Sucking on popsicles or lozenges low in sugar to increase saliva.
Avoid spicy foods or acidic fruit, such as oranges or grapefruit, that may inflame sores.
Use plasticware instead of metal knives, forks, or cans.
Rinsing your mouth every four to six hours for comfort and palette cleansing between meals. (An alcohol-free mouthwash or a water and baking soda solution are good choices).
To help with any excessive mucus in your throat, try gargling with warm salt water and sip on liquids throughout the day. Warm teas can also help with clearing the throat and easing nausea. Consider drinking sports or therapeutic nutrition drinks for extra calories.
Your provider may recommend a temporary feeding tube if choking or the inability to eat, drink, or swallow becomes a concern.
Pelvic Area Radiation Can Cause Side Effects that Impact Your Eating Habits
Radiation therapy administered to the pelvic region can sometimes cause changes in your bowels or bladder inflammation. Possible side effects include bloating; difficulty urinating; diarrhea or constipation; and rectal irritation or itchiness (proctitis). Talk with your care team for recommendations and best practices to avoid complications after receiving radiation therapy for colorectal, prostate, or gynecologic cancer.
Reduce bloating and gas:
Eat slowly, making sure to chew thoroughly
Avoid chewing gum and carbonated drinks
Limit gas-producing foods, such as Brussels sprouts, cabbage, beans, and some artificial sweeteners, like sorbitol, aspartame, and stevia
Manage bladder issues:
Avoid eating spicy foods
Stop tobacco use
Drink plenty of fluids that do not include caffeine and alcohol
Find relief from frequent, watery bowel movements:
Avoid caffeine and alcohol
Replenish fluids throughout the day
Eat more soluble fiber, such as sweet potatoes, carrots, oats, apples without skins, and bananas
Speak with your physician if diarrhea does not improve
Drink eight to 10 cups of liquids a day
Incorporate high-fiber foods, such as bran cereals, popcorn, and fruits and vegetables with skins on into your diet
Establish regularity by eating and trying to have a bowel movement on a schedule.
Try to exercise lightly each day
Contact your doctor if you are unable to have a bowel movement for three or more days; use laxatives only as recommended by a doctor
Minimize inflammation of the rectum (proctitis):
Avoid spicy, acidic, and fatty foods during bouts of diarrhea
Try switching to alternative forms of milk if lactose intolerance may be a factor
Nutrition Counseling for Radiation Therapy Patients in the Atlanta Area