26 Apr Helpful Nutritional Tips for Head and Neck Cancer Patients
While every cancer diagnosis can bring nutritional challenges, a patient facing head and neck cancer may have some particular obstacles to overcome – physically, mentally, and emotionally. The symptoms of the cancer itself and side effects from treatment can make eating, one of the most basic human activities, into a painful, frightening, sometimes seemingly impossible task.
You may experience changes in taste, a reduction in saliva (or changes to its consistency), sore throat, nausea, and loss of appetite, among other symptoms and side effects. These changes can take all of the pleasure from eating for a while. It will take patience and frequent, open communication with your care team to ensure the best possible outcome. As a cancer patient, you must consider eating your number one job during your treatment. Even if you don’t feel like eating (and sometimes you won’t), you will feel better in the long run and recover faster if you keep your nutrition levels up.
Your Ally: Your Nutrition Specialist
Upon receiving a diagnosis of head and neck cancer, your physician care team will refer you to a dietician or nutrition specialist. They will assess your health and nutrition needs and begin educating you on best nourishing your body throughout your treatment. Your relationship with your dietitian or nutritionist is vitally important. They will be walking with you through all of your treatment and recovery phases. Your nutritionist will provide you with a customized plan based on your unique needs, taking into account not only your cancer but also your overall health and any other medical conditions, your personal preferences, and your lifestyle. You’ll likely meet with your dietician/nutritionist every other week or even more often. Good nutrition is critical in helping you to keep your strength up during your treatments, so consider your dietitian to be one of the closest allies in your journey!
Doing Your Research
Many patients feel that nutrition is one of the few things they can control during head and neck cancer treatment. And to an extent, that’s true – you will face choices about what to eat, when to eat, how to eat, and how much to eat. Knowing your body and the value of good nutrition during your journey can be very empowering. If you want to learn more about nutrition, do your research – but be sure to talk to your physician and your dietitian before making any significant changes to your diet. Now may not be the best time to worry about losing weight or to cut something completely out of your diet, like sugar or fat. Bring a list of your questions to your appointments; together, you and your care team can modify your plan to make the best sense for you.
Different Stages Mean Different Forms of Nourishment
Before treating head and neck cancers, your dietitian may suggest that you eat foods higher in protein and calories, or even supplements, to help you build up your reserves and strength. Later, you may be on a liquid or pureed diet for a time – your dietitian will provide recipes for healthy smoothies and other soft, easy-to-swallow foods. As you progress, you may be able to eat soft foods with a little more texture, like soft scrambled eggs, mashed potatoes, ground beef, beans, and creamy soups. Your dietitian will probably tell you to avoid highly acidic foods like tomatoes and citrus or spicy foods, which can irritate the mouth and throat.
You may even be put on a feeding tube for a time. It is normal to feel apprehensive and even somewhat afraid of this step, but your care team will be there to support you. Be sure to follow their directions, and if you are having trouble, ask for help.
Try Not to Compare
Sometimes, well-meaning friends and relatives – or even members of your care team – may tell you stories about people they know who have faced similar conditions of head and neck cancer and share how quickly those patients recovered. And while it’s great to know what might be possible, don’t be discouraged if your progress doesn’t exactly match someone else’s. Your body is unique, and your recovery will be unique, too.
What NOT to Do
Don’t keep things to yourself. Sometimes patients do not realize that a symptom is related to their head and neck cancer treatment – for example, many people do not think to report tooth pain to their doctor, and instead, think that they will wait and tell their dentist. Or they might try to downplay feelings of depression or anxiety. Your physician and your care team are there to help you with your pain and discomfort, but they need to know the whole story. They may be able to prescribe something to help with those side effects that will make a difference in your ability to eat more comfortably. Be honest, and don’t worry about “bothering” your care team – they are there for you!
It’s Not Going to Be Easy.
Head and neck cancers, and their treatment, can be painful and overwhelming. Making sure that you are getting adequate nutrition during this time can feel like an impossible challenge. While you may think that you are losing an essential and pleasurable aspect of life for a while, your body needs sustenance. Work with your doctors and your dietitian, sharing all your symptoms and side effects, no matter how trivial they may seem. Your care team is there to help!