Problems that may affect your eating

There are a number of problems that may affect your eating during and after cancer treatment. 

I feel too tired to eat

It may be that you're too tired to eat or can't be bothered to prepare or cook food.

What can I do?

Accept offers of help with shopping and cooking from friends and relatives. You may find it helpful to prepare food in advance – when you feel like cooking – rather than leave it to meal times.

You may also find meals on wheels helpful. Ask your nurse to refer you to social services.

What can I eat?

  • Make use of convenience foods and ready-made meals. Plan ahead and keep stocks of these in your cupboard or freezer
  • Make use of snacks that do not require much preparation
  • Drinking a nourishing drink may be easier than eating a meal

I feel sick

Nausea or sickness may be due to your treatment or medication.

What can I do?

There is a range of anti-sickness (anti-emetic) medicines available. Ask your doctor or nurse which would be suitable for you.

Avoid strong smells as they often make nausea worse. Try not to sit in a stuffy room; fresh air can help.

What can I eat?

  • Cold foods or foods at room temperature usually smell less than hot foods – try tinned fruit, biscuits, dry toast, yoghurt, cereal, ice cream, etc. You may be able to eat a main meal if you allow it to cool down to room temperature as this will reduce the smell
  • Sucking boiled sweets, fruit sweets and mints may be helpful
  • Dry toast or ginger nut biscuits may help settle your stomach
  • Remember to drink plenty of liquid. Some people find sipping fizzy drinks such as ginger ale or soda water helpful. Try herb teas that contain ginger
  • Greasy foods can make nausea worse so it may be useful to avoid these
  • Try to eat small amounts of food throughout the day – little and often – rather than large meals
  • Anxiety can make nausea worse so try to make meals as calm and relaxed as possible

Find out more about coping with nausea or watch our video about how to manage nausea during chemotherapy treatment. 

I have a sore mouth or throat

Radiotherapy and chemotherapy can cause a sore mouth or throat. This problem can be made worse by infections (such as thrush) or by problems with your teeth or dentures.

What can I do?

If you have a sore mouth or throat contact your doctor or nurse who can prescribe medication to help.

What can I eat or drink?

  • Choose soft foods or add extra sauces and gravy to your food
  • Avoid alcohol – wines and spirits in particular will irritate sore areas
  • Try to drink nutritional supplements in addition to food
  • Foods that are not of a smooth texture, such as mince and cereals, can get caught in sore areas; smooth foods, such as egg custard or blancmange, will slip down more easily
  • Avoid very hot foods; try warm, cool or frozen foods and drinks to see which temperature is most comfortable
  • Rough and sticky foods are hard to eat, so avoid foods like bread, crispbread, peanut butter and doughnuts
  • Salty, acidic and spicy foods will irritate sore areas; avoid curry, chillies, pepper, tomato sauces, oranges and other citrus fruits, vinegar, and crisps
  • Soup is generally very salty and low in energy. If you want soup choose creamy, smooth (blended) ones, such as cream of chicken, or Build Up/Complan soups. Let the soup cool before trying it

I have a dry mouth

Radiotherapy to the head or neck area, some chemotherapy and painkillers can all lead to a dry mouth. When your mouth is dry you are at increased risk of getting infections such as oral (mouth) thrush and tooth decay that will make eating harder.

What can I do?

Ask your doctor or nurse about mouthwashes and medication that may reduce the chance of you getting oral (mouth) thrush. Artificial saliva and pastilles are available and may provide useful relief of a dry mouth.

What can I eat or drink?

  • Sip cool drinks frequently to help moisten your mouth. It will help if those drinks contain energy or protein – milkshakes, hot milky drinks, fizzy drinks, fruit juices and fruit squash (hot or cold). Sucking ice cubes may also help
  • Choose soft, moist foods that have sauces, gravy, custard, cream or syrups with them
  • Avoid sticky, chewy and dry foods such as bread, cold meat and chocolate
  • Bread, crackers and biscuits can be dipped into liquids such as tea, coffee and milk to make them easier to swallow
  • Some people find sucking sweets, sugar-free chewing gum or eating citrus fruits helps them produce saliva. Take care with strong citrus flavours if your mouth is sore

My sense of taste has changed

There are many reasons why your sense of taste may have changed, for example chemotherapy, radiotherapy, medication and sometimes the cancer itself. If you have a dry mouth you will probably also have taste changes.

What can I do?

Ask your doctor or nurse about mouth care, especially if your mouth feels coated or your saliva seems thicker than normal.

If foods taste peculiar or unpleasant:

  • If the food affected is one you eat occasionally then avoid that particular food
  • If it is a food you have often you will need to find an alternative. For example, drink hot fruit squash or milk instead of tea or coffee (you could also try herbal teas but if you are losing weight remember to add sugar, honey or glucose). If meat starts to taste metallic then have more eggs, chicken, fish or cheese
  • If you dislike the flavour of salty foods have more sweet foods instead. If savoury foods are difficult then eat more desserts and cake
  • If you are avoiding a lot of foods ask to see a dietitian for more advice

If there is always an unpleasant taste in your mouth:

This can be due to medication you are taking or to treatment but it would be sensible to see your oral hygienist to make sure it's not caused by a problem with your teeth or gums.

  • Try sucking fruit sweets or mints to mask the taste
  • Concentrate on the foods that you can manage most easily
  • If you are avoiding a lot of foods ask to see a dietitian for more advice

If everything tastes very bland:

Sometime food may taste like cardboard or have no taste at all. This is usually associated with extreme dryness following radiotherapy.

  • Choose foods that are highly flavoured and try to increase the flavour and aroma of your food using spices, marinades, pickles, etc.
  • Add textures to your food, such as crushed crisps over savoury dishes or sprinkle chopped nuts on desserts. This may be difficult if your mouth is too dry after treatment
  • Combine different temperatures together, such as hot fruit pie and cold ice cream
  • If eating food is very difficult then supplementary drinks will be useful to ensure you get the nutrition you need

I have diarrhoea

Diarrhoea may be due to your illness, treatment or medication.

What can I do?

Talk to your doctor or nurse who will try to work out the cause of your diarrhoea and give any necessary medication.

What can I eat or drink?

  • Drink plenty of fluids to avoid becoming dehydrated. Aim for 10 to 12 glasses or cups each day. Remember, fluids include milk and milk shakes, fruit juice, soup, custard and jelly, as well as tea, coffee and water
  • Look out for the symptoms of dehydration: passing urine less often and passing small amounts of dark coloured urine
  • If these symptoms persist despite your best efforts to drink more contact your doctor. This is especially important if you are also vomiting
  • Eat small amounts frequently
  • Ask your dietitian, doctor or nurse if you need to change your diet

I am constipated

Constipation may be due to disease, treatment or medication (especially painkillers). If you are very constipated you may feel full and suffer from nausea or sickness.

What can I do?

The advice for constipation is often to increase your intake of dietary fibre but this may not have the desired effect if your constipation is not diet related. Talk to your doctor or nurse about suitable laxatives. 

Watch our video about how to manage constipation during chemotherapy treatment. 

What can I eat or drink?

  • Drink plenty of fluids, at least 10 to 12 glasses or cups each day
  • Try to take some gentle exercise
  • Please speak to your dietitian, doctor or nurse to see if increasing the fibre in your diet will be of any benefit

I feel full too quickly

Many people find that they feel full long before completing their meal. This often happens when you haven't been eating well, have had surgery or are receiving treatment.

What can I do?

There are medicines that can help your stomach empty faster – ask your doctor or nurse if they would be suitable for you. Try to avoid getting constipated as this can make matters worse.

What can I eat?

  • Small frequent snacks throughout the day are often easier than a full meal. Some people find it helpful to leave a gap between their main course and pudding
  • Choose high-energy products or enrich your food with high-energy supplements
  • Avoid drinking lots of fluid just before you eat, as you will feel too full
  • Sit up straight at meal times if you can
  • Avoid lying down straight after eating. You may find a short walk after eating makes you more comfortable

Find out more

Further information can be found in this section of the website and in the Eating Well booklet or by contacting the Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS).

For further advice, watch our video about how to manage nausea during chemotherapy treatment.