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When Radiation Therapy Causes Eating Problems

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Patients who receive radiation therapy to the head and neck experience redness and soreness in the mouth, a dry mouth, trouble swallowing, changes in taste, and nausea. If swallowing is difficult, soft or liquid foods, especially thick fluids may be more easily tolerated. Drinking high-calorie and high protein liquids will meet a patient's nutritional needs if eating enough regular foods is a problem.

The American Cancer Society website, www.cancer.org, offers suggestions for coping with this side effect of cancer treatment. If you are having difficulty swallowing try:

• Drinking 6 to 8 cups of fluid daily and thickening the fluid to the consistency that is easiest to tolerate;
• Eating small, frequent meals;
• Using canned liquid nutritional supplements if unable to eat enough food to meet an adequate caloric intake;
• Chopping or pureeing food in a blender or food processor;
• Call your physician if you cough or choke while eating, or have a fever.

Other helpful tips include mixing one tablespopn of unflavored gelatin in two cups of liquid until dissolved and pouring this over sandwiches, pureed fruits and even cake. Allow the food to sit until saturated. Baby rice cereal, cooked cereals, such as Cream of Wheat, and instant potatoes added to soups are options. Additional sources of protein are yogurt without fruit, cottage cheese, scrambled eggs, and pureed meat, poultry, and fish. Thickened milkshakes, cream soups, custards, and pudding are diet choices that are easier to swallow.

An irritated mouth and throat are side effects of radiation therapy to the head and neck. One should avoid:

• Tart, acidic or salty foods and drinks, such as citrus juices, pickled foods and tomato-based foods;
• Rough textured or hard foods, such as dry toast, granola, raw fruits and vegetables;
• Alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco;
• Irritating spices, such as chili powder, cloves, curry, nutmeg, and pepper. Rather, season foods with herbs, such as basil, oregano, and thyme;
• Choose lukewarm or cold foods. Very hot foods or drinks can cause discomfort. Fruit pops, fruit ices, and ice chips may be soothing.

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HERWriter Guide

Hi Maryann - Thanks for sharing these very helpful and practical tips. Too often the cancer treatment process becomes a series of endless appointments and treatments without enough attention to the aspects of going about our daily lives.

One book that I've found helpful is "Eating Well Through Cancer" by Holly Clegg and Gerald Miletello, MD. What I like about it is that the authors recognize your needs are different at different times. For example dietary concerns on the day of chemotherapy are very different from those of going to healthy eating practices after treatment.

We wish you well in your upcoming treatments, and appreciate that you share your experiences and knowledge with us so we can all benefit.

Take good care,

December 16, 2009 - 5:46pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.