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Many people who have cancer don't actually die from cancer. About 1/3 of cancer patients actually die from the complications of poor nutrition, made more difficult by the fact food tastes bad. Here are the basics of making food taste better during cancer.

Most people who undergo cancer treatment have lasting problems with nutrition. Chemotherapy almost universally causes nausea and vomiting, and the memories of digestive with each chemotherapy session persist even after the drugs wear off.

Radiation treatment can make the mouth sore so that eating and drinking are painful. And many kinds of cancer treatment alter the taste buds or the sense of smell so that food tastes bitter, or metallic, or has no taste at all.

There are some things you and your family or support team can do before you have cancer treatment to make eating less of a chore, and there are some things you or your family or support team can do after you have cancer treatment to make food more pleasurable. Here are the basics for getting ready for cancer treatment:

  • Be sure you have any drugs you need to control nausea and vomiting on hand (ondansetron, for example) before you start treatment. They only work if you take them before you have chemotherapy.
  • Plan your menu ahead of time. You want to avoid any kind of food that has a pungent aroma when you are on drugs that can cause nausea and vomiting. No matter how much you love garlic bread or stinky cheese, these are the kinds of foods you just can't have when you are on chemo. You also want to avoid your favorite foods when you are getting cancer treatment because your brain will associate their aroma with the unpleasant experiences of your treatment.
  • On the day you have treatment (and for two or three days afterward, if your digestive symptoms persist) don't eat any high-fiber, high-fat, or vinegary foods. Fiber, fat, and vinegar slow down the passage of food through your digestive tract and make it more likely they will come up again by vomiting. This means no chips, dips, butter, fried foods, peanut butter, or whole milk products until you are sure you can keep food down. You also need to avoid sourdough, cinnamon, and sugar-free products sweetened with xylitol, because they also take longer to pass through the stomach.
  • On the day you have your treatment, avoid foods with strong odors such as barbecue, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and sauerkraut, cauliflower, curry, fish and especially fish sauce, hard cheese, hot peppers, garlic, onions, liver, ketchup, kimchi, Tabasco, and soy sauce. The odor can activate nausea, and you will come to associate the odor with nausea so that you don't enjoy these foods in the future.
  • When you eat, eat sitting up, and don't lie down again for at least 30 minutes afterward. This keeps food from backing up from your stomach into your esophagus.
  • If you experience nausea, apply ice wrapped in a damp washcloth or a cold pack wrapped in a damp washcloth to the back of your neck.
  • Make sure you eat in a well ventilated room, so the odors of food won't linger. This minimizes both nausea and the formation of food memories that link specific foods with nausea.
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