SIDE EFFECTS OF RADIATION
As cancer treatments go, radiation therapy is one of the most notably effective in fighting the disease. The reason that it works is that it destroys cancerous or bad cells and keeps the disease from spreading.
However, along with the positive there is a downside to radiotherapy. It also destroys or affects healthy cells in the process.
The good news though is that radiation therapy is a treatment for cancer that can reduce symptoms markedly. But first you have to get through it.
The most common side effects of radiotherapy:
- Hair loss
- Dry skin
- Difficulty swallowing especially if radiation to the head and neck
- Loss of appetite
KEEPING HEALTHY DURING RADIOTHERAPY
The most important aspect of treatment when fighting cancer is staying healthy and maintaining good nutrition. This prevents muscle wasting and weight loss. However, when you experience some or all of the above symptoms, sometimes that’s easier said than done.
The most important rule of thumb to remember is to eat a diet high in protein and dense in calories. Even if you have other medical conditions such as diabetes, hypertension or heart disease, dietary restrictions can be loosened during chemo and radiation treatments. The most important thing to remember is that whatever “works” in terms of being able to eat it, that’s the menu to follow. The most important part of cancer care is nutrition and keeping healthy.
Consider some of these important points when undergoing radiation therapy:
- Drink at least 8-12 cups of liquid per day – this can be juice, broth, carbonated water, etc. Sipping through a straw makes it easier to swallow liquids. The point of hydrating is to avoid dehydration and to stimulate appetite and bodily functions
- Switch to high protein varieties of foods such as whole milk, yogurts, etc. Cut out the non-fat or low-fat during this time period because you’ll be getting more calories as well
- Milkshakes and smoothies can be a great source of protein and calories and are usually more tolerable than whole foods at different times in therapy. Consider adding tofu or other high protein sources along with fruits such as bananas. Homemade fruit popsicles are also good ways to soothe dry mouth or hydrate and are providing good nutrition at the same time
- Add powdered milk or buttermilk to soups, stews, etc. The extra protein boost will go a long way towards maintaining good cancer nutrition
- If tolerated, nuts and seeds can add calories and protein – if whole nuts, grains and seeds aren’t tolerated, whir them in a blender and mix into foods or sprinkle on top of foods for the added nutrition
- Avoid greasy, spicy, acidic foods unless they are well tolerated. Select soft, moist foods that are easier to swallow like mashed potatoes or thickened soups and puddings
- There is some controversy over cancer patients using regular dairy products because they may contain growth hormones that may encourage cancer growth. Some providers recommend switching to milk or dairy products made from oats, nuts or rice.
- Check with your doctor before adding in any supplements or vitamins as there is much controversy about whether or not these can accelerate cancer growth or retard it
- Eat many small meals throughout the day instead of 3 large meals but try and eat at least 1/3 of your daily intake early in the day
- For nausea, sip fluids throughout the day such as carbonated water and add in snacks such as crackers or bland biscuits. Avoid gas-producing foods or acidic foods to keep bloating, abdominal pain and heartburn to a minimum
- Suck on lemon drops or hard candies for dry mouth and if metallic taste occurs in the mouth, switch to plastic utensils. Also try eating more fish and add some spices to food to enhance the flavors
- Room temperature or lukewarm temperature foods are good for mouth sores or mucositis although sometimes ice cold or relatively cold milkshakes and slushies can relieve mouth pain
- Cut food into very small pieces or puree if you are experiencing difficulties with swallowing. Adding gravy or broth to foods will also make them easier to swallow
There is still much to learn about what to eat when you’re undergoing cancer treatments. However, these suggestions have been proven to be sound for most people while undergoing radiation therapy.
If you are not receiving adequate nutrition, supplements such as Ensure and Boost can also help you take in more protein and calories. In some cases, providers will recommend the use of a feeding tube for the short term to ensure adequate nutrition.
Store food appropriately and use fastidious mouth hygiene practices when going through chemotherapy or radiation therapy. It helps to brush after everything you eat and rinse your mouth frequently with baking soda mixtures or lemon water. Washing your hands and cooking areas after each meal will also go a long way to keeping you healthier when your body needs its best defense mechanisms.
Find the foods and liquids that work the best for you and try to pack in as much as you possibly can. The best nutrition that you can muster will help you fight the cancer and remain healthy long after the treatments are completed.
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