Changes in Eating

There are several factors that can affect your loved one’s ability to eat during cancer treatment. Some of these include:

  • Problems swallowing, which can be caused by pain or by the location of the tumor; researchers evaluated patients with oropharyngeal cancer before treatment and found that 67 percent had deficits in the ability to retract the tongue, 51 percent had decreased tongue strength and 40 percent had delayed swallowing
  • Nausea and/or vomiting,which are often side effects associated with chemoradiation therapy
  • Changes in the perception of taste or smell
  • Changes in salivation, such as decreased salivation or changes in the saliva quality
  • Diarrhea
  • Decreased appetite
  • Inflammation of the membranes in the mouth (mucositis); severe mucositis sometimes causes pain, which in turn negatively impacts the desire to eat

Solutions for eating problems during cancer treatment

If your loved one experiences any of these problems and nutritional needs are not being met, there are various solutions a registered nutritionist and health care professionals may suggest, which are as follows:

  • Eat smaller meals more often.
  • Eat or drink foods rich in nutrients.
  • Obtain nutrients through a feeding tube or an IV. A nutritionist or other clinician may suggest this if your loved one loses 5% of their body weight within a one month time period, or 10% of their body weight within a six month period.
  • Manage treatment-associated side effects. For example, if your loved one has decreased salivation as a side effect of radiation therapy, report this symptom to a cancer care team member. The doctor, in turn, may recommend the use of a medication that can stimulate salivary production (e.g., pilocarpine).

There may be a surgical remedy for long-term eating problems as well. Ask the care team if surgery is needed or might help.

The nurses and therapists were terrific at working with me and giving me exercises to learn how to swallow and speak again. Barry W. (palatomaxillary and low grade adenocarcinoma of minor salivary gland cancer survivor)