Helping a Loved One With Cancer Eat Better During Treatment and Adjusting to Life and Nutrition After Treatment

TON May 2015 Vol 8 No 3 - Supportive Care
Abby C. Sauer, MPH, RD

Eating Better During Treatment

When a loved one is going through treatment for cancer, the caregiver’s roles may be many and varied, from helping to get a second opinion and deciding about treatment, to talking with visitors, or trying to keep up the loved one’s spirits. Grocery shopping, making favorite meals, and taking the patient out to dinner at a favorite restaurant are probably on this list as well. However, during cancer treatment, the patient might not always feel like eating and might not want to eat the same foods he or she used to enjoy. For example, one day the patient may eat with gusto but the next, a favorite food may taste unappealing. The caregiver should not take this personally, as this is all a normal part of the process and how cancer treatment can impact a patient’s appetites and eating habits.

The caregiver can do much to help the loved one eat better during this tough time, to start strong and stay strong through his or her cancer treatment. Many of the following tips may be useful as strategies to help the caregiver cope through this process as well.
• Have lots of food options available and be prepared for changes in the patient’s tastes, which can change from day to day. Some days he or she will not want favorite foods because they do not taste good; other times, he or she will be able to eat a dish that did not taste good just the day before.
• Have lots of easy and nutritious snacks ready so the patient can have something available to eat whenever he or she is ready and feels hungry. Good options include individual packs of applesauce or pudding, baby carrots, fresh fruit, yogurt, cheese cubes, peanut butter and crackers, half a sandwich, or an oral nutritional supplement like Ensure Complete.
• Be prepared for times when the patient is able to eat only one or two foods for a few days in a row, until particular side effects go away. Even if he or she cannot eat at all, still encourage plenty of fluids, like clear liquids and light soups.
• Try not to push the patient into eating and drinking, as this strategy most likely will not lead to the desired outcome. Instead, offer encouragement and gentle, nonjudgmental support without being overwhelming, which is much more helpful to the patient and less stressful for the caregiver.
• Talk to the patient about any needs and concerns, and about ideas that might work best. A caregiver’s willingness to be flexible and supportive, no matter what the situation, will help the patient feel more in control. Also, the caregiver should actively listen to what the patient is saying, as listening is one of the best ways to show caring and concern.
• Gather information, ideas, and recipes. Knowledge is power, and it helps to be armed with the right information on the importance of nutrition during cancer treatment and ways to help. Find recipes for comfort foods or new foods that will fit with what the patient wants to eat.
• Accept a helping hand. If other family members and friends offer to assist with grocery shopping, cooking, and eating, accept their offer—the extra help and company will benefit both the caregiver and the patient.

For further information on how to care for a loved one with cancer, go to the National Cancer Institute website at or the American Cancer Society website at

Adjusting to Life and Nutrition After Treatment

As treatment ends, patients and caregivers enter a new phase. Until now, the caregiver has probably been focused on getting the patient through treatment, with little time alone to think about things and come to terms with the many changes that have occurred. Putting their own feelings and needs on hold until treatment is over is what most caregivers do.

Once treatment ends, most people want to put the cancer experience behind them. Still, many caregivers are not sure what to do next. It can be a time of mixed emotions—happiness and relief that treatment is over are to be expected, but at the same time, the full impact of what the caregiver has gone through with a loved one may start to set in.

It is important to remember that during this time, each person involved in the cancer experience tends to adjust at his or her own pace. Some people are able to resume their regular activities right away; others may need some extra time to recover. The patient may still be coping with the effects of treatment and adjusting to all the changes. There may be pressure for the caregiver or loved one to get back to the way things were before cancer. Yet it is important to know that for some, this can still be an emotional period. The cancer patient and the caregiver both need time to come to terms with what has happened and to figure out a “new normal.” This means getting back to living life, but in a way that is probably different from before.

During treatment, the caregiver took on many roles. He or she may have been in charge of numerous decisions, allowing the loved one to step back from decision making to stay focused on getting through treatment. Once it’s over, it is common for caregivers to feel confused and to have many questions, such as “How do I help my loved one now? Should I go back to work, or stay at home? When will my loved one be ready to take on former roles and responsibilities?” The answers to these questions vary with each person. Moving forward, the caregiver must try to be patient and take things one day at a time.

If the caregiver has been putting his or her own needs aside, this may be a good time to think about self-care. Having some down time to recharge mind and spirit can help a person cope. Things caregivers may want to think about include:
• Getting back to activities they enjoy
• Finding new ways to connect with friends
• Establishing a support group and finding ways others can help, and
• Keeping the focus on nutrition even after cancer treatment ends

Successful Nutrition Planning After Cancer Treatment

Many times, the appetite and eating problems a patient experiences during cancer treatment go away after the treatment ends. Problems such as a sore throat or taste changes tend to resolve, and the patient’s ability and desire to eat come back. It is important for the caregiver to recognize that good nutrition remains important for the patient, and the caregiver, even after treatment ends. It is important that the patients eat well to regain weight, strength, and energy on the road to recovery. There are some simple strategies that can be followed to help a patient eat well after cancer treatment, including:
• Try small, frequent meals and snacks throughout the day
• Start with simple meals and snacks. Do not try too many spicy, fried, or fatty foods until the patient can handle these foods.
• Incorporate lots of seasonal and fresh fruits and vegetables to entice the taste buds
• Include whole grains, including breads, oats, and cereals
• Try low-fat dairy foods such as milk, yogurt, and cheese
• Be sure to drink plenty of fluids each day
• Limit fat, salt, and sugar, and...
• Most importantly, learn how to enjoy food again!

If caregivers needs more help with their loved one’s nutrition, encourage them to work with a registered dietitian who can help provide individualized advice. A caregiver can find a local registered dietitian through the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics at

The role of the caregiver during and after cancer treatment is critical. The caregiver tends to serve many roles—nurse, housecleaner, chauffeur, chef—but loved one is the most important role. The support the caregiver provides is priceless to the patient and his or her recovery. Helping the patient with nutrition and eating provides that simple support the patient needs to feel better and get through this journey.

Disclosure Statement
Abby C. Sauer works for Abbott Nutrition Research & Development.

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Last modified: July 2, 2015