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Chemotherapy affects everyone differently, so we’ve pulled together this rough guide to how food plays a part in your recovery. It’s a good idea to share this information with friends and family, too, especially if they’re taking on the lion’s share of cooking while you’re undergoing treatment.
There are lots of different types of chemotherapy that can be used to treat your cancer. Different types affect the body in different ways, so it’s important to point out that you’re unlikely to be affected by every possible side-effect listed here.
Changes in appetite
Before you even begin chemo, your emotions can have a big impact on your appetite. Feelings of dread or anxiety can put you off your food entirely. This is entirely understandable, and should pass in time as you adjust to your new circumstances.
Some people will find that chemo doesn’t affect their appetite at all, but most people will find their eating habits change because of the side effects it causes. Some people, for instance, lose their appetite, while some drugs given during chemotherapy can actually stimulate your hunger. If that’s the case and you’re worried about gaining weight, opt for low-fat and low-sugar foods, and eat plenty of fresh fruit and veg.
Coping with other side-effects
One of the more common side-effects is a change in your sense of taste and smell. Lots of people report that water and meat can take on a metallic or otherwise unpleasant flavour. If you find you’re one of those people affected, swap plain water for squash and get your protein from elsewhere, like fish or eggs. Swapping to plastic cutlery or eating with chopsticks can also make it better, believe it or not.
Other people report constipation (so eat more fibre if that’s you), or diarrhoea (in which case, go easy on greasy foods and fruit juices, and up your fluid intake).
Mouth sores can also appear with some types of chemotherapy. Salty, crunchy, tart and spicy foods, alcohol and hot temperature foods can all make this worse, so avoid them if you’ve got sores. Ice lollies and ice cubes can help soothe the pain.
If your appetite has abandoned you, eating little and often can be much easier to face, and also make it easier to combat the effects of nausea.
What to eat and drink
Sticking to a healthy diet will give your body the fuel it needs to recover. Ensuring you don’t start forgoing food is really important. Go for ‘easy’ meals like beans on toast if that’s all you’re feeling up to, or snacks like peanut butter and crackers. If solid foods are problematic, go for soups and smoothies.
Staying hydrated is also really important. You should aim for at least two litres of water a day, and more if you’re suffering with diarrhoea. Some types of chemo can affect your salivary glands and give you a dry mouth; this can be counteracted by sipping water throughout the day.
It can be tempting to boost your vitamin intake or otherwise boost your diet with supplements, but this can affect how your treatment works. Ask your oncologist before starting to take anything.
What to avoid
Chemotherapy can make you more susceptible to infections, so it’s important to minimise any risks. Don’t eat any fruit and vegetables that cannot be washed well, like raspberries, and be meticulous about cleanliness in the kitchen:
- Use separate chopping boards for meats and vegetables.
- Wash hands, surfaces and kitchen implements thoroughly after preparing any meal.
- Defrost things in the fridge or microwave – not on the countertop.
There are also some specific foods that you should not eat, to limit the risk of infection:
- Eggs with runny yolks or anything containing raw eggs.
- Meat that is at all pink.
- Raw fish (sashimi) and shellfish (oysters).
- Blue or soft cheeses (Brie, goat’s cheese, Stilton, etc.).
- Green tea in large amounts (the antioxidants can interfere with the chemo drugs).
- Soya-based foods (depending on the type of chemotherapy – ask your doctor).
- Cold cuts and cured meats.
- Unpasteurised juices, dairy products and scrumpy cider.
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