By Rachel Rule and Emma Chow
Following on from our previous article about putting together a care package for yourself or a loved one undergoing chemo therapy, we now discuss managing a healthy diet during treatment. Again, this has been written with the help of our friend Rachel Rule, who is currently undergoing one of several bouts of chemo therapy she has endured during her battle with bowel cancer. (Read more of Rachel’s sparkling, uplifting and witty words at her blog, The British Rule).
While chemo therapy aims to destroy cancer cells, it also causes damage to other parts of the body, nutrient loss and other problems in side effects such as nausea, constipation or diarrhea and exhaustion. A balanced diet which also includes regular intake of foods that have antioxidants (a molecular inhibitor of oxidisation which produces free radicals that can damage healthy cells) can counteract some chemo damage and assist cell repair.
Natural, unprocessed food is the best possible thing to eat during chemo therapy. The more processing food undergoes the less natural vitamins and nutrients they contain. While many modern processed foods add in vitamins in processing, these foods in no way match the benefit of whole and fresh foods.
While every person is different, commonly many chemo patients describe an aversion to:
- Strong flavoured foods
- Strongly spiced or hot foods
- Foods which have strong onion-like odours
- Acidic foods
- Salty and oily foods.
Because the body’s immunities are depleted during therapy, extra care should be taken in selecting food, preparing, storing and reheating it. This can apply both to the patient themselves and someone planning on preparing food for the patient.
- As with pregnancy, listeria prone foods such as raw fish, rare meat, undercooked eggs, unpasteurised dairy, soft serve, sushi, pre-made salads and sandwiches should be avoided
- Carefully wash hands with soap and hot water before preparing food
- Fresh fruit and vegetables should be carefully washed before serving or cooking. Consider using an organic vegetable wash which can be found at health food stores and organic stores. Otherwise consider peeling fruit and vegetables
- Freeze prepared meals and cook them from frozen rather than letting things sit in the fridge for a long time
- Try to avoid eating less-than-fresh food and try to consume leftovers quickly
- Eating cooked vegetables and thoroughly cooking meat and fish is recommended to avoid contact with bacteria which is more dangerous to chemo patients.
Both constipation and diarrhoea are common experiences for chemo patients:
- For constipation, eat more high-fibre foods and consume more fluids
- For diarrhoea, avoid drinks which stimulate the bowel such as caffeinated drinks, sugary soft drinks and juice and alcohol. Avoid spicy, high fibre and rich foods. Try the BRAT diet: banana, rice, apples and toast. Drink a lot of water to combat fluid loss. But diarrhoea can be dangerous and should be discussed with a doctor.
During the actual therapy:
- Sip water or tea to stay hydrated
- Sucking on ice cubes is another way to slowly consume liquid and also cool and moisten the mouth
- Sour candy, particularly lemon flavoured or mints can help with the bad taste chemo leaves in the mouth.
It is hard to create a new diet while the many side affects of therapy are being experienced.
“Regarding food, after the amount of chemo I’ve had, I’ve come to realise that there isn’t a “magic bullet” of one item which will cure everything, but there are a lot of small things which made it easier.”
During the period of therapy try to:
- Stay hydrated.
“The key to surviving the chemo treatment is keeping hydrated and taking your medication.
You can take on nausea and hydration with tea – ginger tea will become your new best friend.
Melon is full of water and will keep you hydrated, feel refreshing and give you some energy. Buy a watermelon, cantaloupe and honey dew and either slice it or make a fruit salad (as these melons have a nice tough outer skin, the inner fruit is protected from harmful microorganisms – make sure to wash the skin, then remove it and discard before cutting the fruit). It’s also really easy to keep down and that will make you feel better.
I found sparkling water easier to drink during chemo, so a bottle or two of San Pelligrino is real nice.
Lucozade & Gatorade & hydration drinks – a hit of pure sugar when you have hit to bottom, keep in the pantry.”
- Eat fresh fruit and vegetables (bananas are great as they have a thick skin which protects the insides from harmful outside microorganisms and are high in antioxidants.
Rachel says: “I found I really graved clean, healthy fresh food. You’re essentially filling your body with poison, it’s nice to counteract it with nice food. Same goes for cheese and fatty things, try to keep it lean for a couple of days, you’ll feel better for it.”
- Eat lean meat and fresh fish; high protein dishes such as those containing beef can help the body heal and protect against infection
- Eat wholegrain cereals, breads, pasta
- Eat yogurt, as it the good bacteria can help assist the depleted immune system.
Have small, light meals and snacks rather than large meals:
- Try to nibble a piece of toast or cracker if feeling nauseous but needing to eat
- Moist and smooth foods like soups, stews are easier to consume when suffering dry mouth or mouth sores
- Smoothies and blended milk drinks are great to consume through the day, especially as it can be hard to consume a full meal
- Rough, crunchy, salty, spicy foods should be avoided if dry mouth or mouth sores are being experienced
- Preparing and freezing meals is a great idea and a good thing to do if preparing for a round of therapy or to do for someone before they begin therapy.
This is where a MamaBake group can make a huge difference to a person’s life; prepare several weeks’ worth of meals, package them neatly and deliver them to the home of the chemo patient. Rachel, who I know to be a pretty fantastic cook, prepared for chemo by filling the freezer with home cooked meals and did this regularly between treatment days when she was feeling better.
Rachel tells us she enjoyed:
“Freshly made soup, with individual portions kept in the freezer, was lovely to have on hand.
I had a recipe for a tomato soup with little chicken meatballs which you squeezed lime juice into which I loved – if I was feeling up to eating more I would have the meatballs, if not then I could just have the soup, and the zesty hint really picked me up. Also handy to take into the hospital, the food there leaves a lot to be desired.
Still on the freezer, freeze whole meals for the family. You won’t want to cook, and neither does the person looking after you either. If you have friends who offer to make you some food, don’t even hesitate to take them up on the offer! Even if their cooking is crap, you cannot taste it much anyway!”
MamaBake wishes to thank Rachel Rule for her contribution. Please check our her blog: