Managing Side Effects: Nutrition Tips for Breast Cancer Treatment

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Food may be the last thing on your mind when you’re undergoing metastatic HR-positive/HER2-negative breast cancer treatment. But, maintaining a nutrient-rich diet is crucial to helping your body fight cancer.

Of course, it can be hard to eat when you’re dealing with treatment side effects such as low appetite, nausea, and vomiting.

“Cancer can affect your appetite for a variety of reasons,” says Nicole Hopsecger, a registered dietitian at the Center for Human Nutrition at Cleveland Clinic Cancer Center. “Some tumors release hormones that can interfere with how the body recognizes that it is hungry.” In addition, the cancer and cancer treatment can cause dehydration, depression, nausea, pain, a sore mouth, stress, and taste changes that can reduce your appetite.

These side effects can be unpleasant, but there are things you can do to manage them. Here’s how to deal with everything from a low appetite to nausea and vomiting while going through breast cancer treatment.

Low Appetite

If you find you’re generally not very hungry, try eating small meals, which will be easier to get down than large ones. Keep high-calorie, high-protein snacks on hand, so you can easily eat something whenever you can stomach it. Stick to only small amounts of water or juice, because eating and drinking at the same time can make you feel full faster, says Hopsecger.

On the off chance you have a bigger appetite some days, take advantage by eating large portions and high-calorie food. Some good snack options include cheese, chocolate milk, ice cream, and peanut butter. “Make a list of your favorite meals and snacks, and keep the fridge and pantry stocked, so meal prep is easier,” she suggests.

Protein Deficiency

According to the American Cancer Society, people who have cancer need more protein than those who don’t have the disease. “Protein aids in tissue growth and repair,” Hopsecger explains. “If you don’t get enough from your diet, your body may break down muscle for the protein it needs to heal or fight infections.”

Good sources of protein include dairy, eggs, fish, meat, and poultry. But, if those foods are less appealing to you as you undergo treatment, Hopsecger recommends getting protein from beans, nuts, or protein supplements.

She also suggests trying liquids such as drinkable yogurt or protein shakes. When undergoing breast cancer treatment, “Some people find that drinking their nutrition is easier than eating,” Hopsecger explains. When it comes to ensuring you’re getting nutrients other than protein, juicing is a good way to increase your intake.

Taste and Smell Changes

When you’re on chemotherapy, it’s common to experience changes to your sense of smell and a constant bitter or sour taste in your mouth. Known as dysgeusia, this side effect affects 53 to 84 percent of breast cancer patients undergoing treatment, according to a review published in January 2023. “Every individual experiences differences in which tastes or textures do not work for them,” Hopsecger adds.

She recommends using marinades to add or balance flavors in fish, meat, and poultry dishes. Depending on what taste changes you’re experiencing, adding lemon or lime juice can liven up bland foods or add sweetness to foods that taste too bitter or salty. If you’re experiencing a metallic taste in your mouth, eat with plastic silverware and avoid food packaged in metal containers. To help get rid of unwanted lingering flavors, brush your teeth after every meal.

Food Aversions

Changes to your sense of taste and smell may also result in a distaste for certain foods. “Someone may also develop an aversion if they got sick after eating a specific food,” Hopsecger says.

If scent is your obstacle, she suggests avoiding foods that are pungent, such as cabbage, fish, garlic, and onions. If the texture of meat is bothering you, try shredding it to make it more palatable.

Nausea and Vomiting

Avoiding aromatic foods can also help with nausea. Stick to foods that appeal most to you, and eat smaller meals throughout the day to help combat nausea.

If you’re having trouble keeping food down, stick with small amounts of calorie-dense, mildly flavored foods. Hopsecger recommends eating high-fat foods such as avocado, nuts, and nut butters and incorporating healthy oils, such as olive oil, into meals. These foods are a great way to efficiently increase your day’s calorie count without having to eat a lot.

In addition to following these tips, it’s important to work with the right professionals. Many cancer centers have oncology dietitians who can help you navigate nutrient deficiencies and appetite issues. They can also answer questions about your dietary needs during treatment.

If your low appetite is a result of anxiety, depression, or stress, Hopsecger recommends working with a psychologist or social worker who specializes in people undergoing cancer treatment.

With the right support, you can manage your symptoms and ensure you’re getting the right nutrients to support your body throughout breast cancer treatment.

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