Tips for Managing Cancer Treatment Side Effects

Here are some helpful nutrition and diet tips to manage common symptoms from cancer treatment.

| February 2018

  • Cancer treatments produce many different symptoms, these nutritional tips are an excellent remedy.
    Photo by Getty Images
  • "The Meals to Heal Cookbook" by Susan Bratton and Jessica Iannotta
    Photo by Da Capo Lifelong Books

According to The Meals to Heal Cookbook (Da Capo Press, 2017) nutrition is a vital component of anyone's fight against cancer, but loss of appetite and side effects of treatment can make even the simple act of eating a challenge. Created by oncology-credentialed registered dietitians, these delicious, nourishing, easy-to-prepare dishes are full of the nutrients you need to maintain strength during treatment. Loaded with essential nutrition info and recipes coded by common symptoms and side effects (including fatigue, nausea, digestive issues, mouth sores, taste and smell aversion, and others) this book is a key source if you or a loved one are struggling against the effects of cancer.

Cancer treatment can cause a variety of nutrition-related side effects. Many of these can be managed with changes in diet, appropriate food selection, and preparation. Following are some suggestions to help manage some of the common side effects and symptoms experienced during cancer treatment. Note that these suggestions are not a replacement for medical advice. Be sure to speak with your health-care team if you have persistent and bothersome symptoms that impact your ability to eat normally or maintain your weight.

Loss of Appetite:

You may eat less than usual, not feel hungry at all, or feel full after eating only a small amount. Although you may not feel like eating, getting adequate nutrition and maintaining a healthy weight are important. Take advantage of the times when your appetite is strongest and try to consume small frequent meals and snacks throughout the day. Try to eat in enjoyable surroundings and make meals look less overwhelming by placing them on smaller rather than larger plates.

Nausea and Vomiting:

Some types of chemotherapy can cause nausea and vomiting. Nausea is sometimes described as an unsettling or queasy feeling in the stomach and can be experienced with or without vomiting. Because an empty stomach may make nausea and vomiting worse, be sure to eat regular meals and snacks. Eat small, frequent meals (five or six times a day) instead of three large meals, and avoid greasy or spicy foods and food with strong odors. Eat dry foods, such as crackers, toast, and pretzels, which may be easier on your stomach. Try ginger teas, ginger candies, or gingersnaps or cookies, or add fresh ginger to soups and stir-fries.


This common side effect is usually described as feeling very weak, tired, or having a lack of energy. Choose foods high in protein and calories, which provide lots of energy. The body is made up of about 70 percent water, so make sure to stay hydrated to keep your body running. Also try to incorporate some physical activity into your day, as studies have shown that exercise can boost mood and increase energy levels. Exercise may also help you gain an appetite. Smoothies are a great way to get a lot of nutrition in just a few sips.


Constipation can be caused by certain chemo-therapies, nausea and pain medications, a change in diet, or a decrease in your usual activity level. Be sure to stay hydrated by drinking at least eight to ten 8-ounce glasses of fluid each day. Eat foods rich in fiber, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts, whole grains, and bran.


Diarrhea occurs when you experience frequent, loose, soft, or watery bowel movements, and it can quickly lead to dehydration. To minimize diarrhea, avoid greasy or fatty food, food high in fiber, raw vegetables, and caffeine. Drink a minimum of eight to ten 8-ounce glasses of clear fluid a day, such as water, broth, juice, ice pops, or decaffeinated tea. Consume foods rich in potassium, such as bananas and potatoes (without skin). Also eat foods high in pectin and soluble fiber, such as applesauce, baked apples, bananas, rice, and oatmeal to help slow down diarrhea.

Changes in Taste and Taste Aversion:

Often during treatment, the foods you usually like can become unappealing. Foods may taste bland, bitter, or metallic. Try rinsing with 1 to 2 ounces of baking soda rinse before and after meals (recipe for baking soda rinse: 1 quart of water, ¾ teaspoon of salt, and 1 teaspoon of baking soda). If red meats taste strange, try substituting other proteins, such as chicken, turkey, fish, eggs, dairy, beans, or tofu. Eat foods that smell and look good to you. Avoid using metal utensils; use plastic ones instead. Avoid hot foods to reduce strong odors; serve food at room temperature instead.

Certain “flavor fixes” can also help to make a meal more tolerable. For example, if you are experiencing a metallic taste, flavor foods with onion, garlic, basil, oregano, rosemary, tarragon, mint, ketchup, barbecue sauce, or mustard. If foods taste too sweet, add six drops of lemon or lime juice, or until the sweet taste is muted. If foods are too salty, add ¼ teaspoon of lemon juice or sweeten foods with syrup, honey, or a pinch of sugar. If foods are too bitter or sour, add a little sweetener, such as maple syrup, honey, or a pinch of sugar. If foods taste like cardboard, add sea salt or a spritz of lemon or lime juice, or vinegar.

If you have an aversion to sweet foods, focus on more savory dishes. If you have an aversion to sour or bitter foods, focus on sweeter options.



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