Cancer and Nutrition: A Senior’s Guide To Nutritional Considerations During Treatment

Nutritional Considerations During Cancer Treatment

Cancer treatment can be a challenging journey, and proper nutrition is critical for maintaining strength and resilience during this time. As a senior facing cancer, it’s important to understand the nutritional considerations that can help support your health and wellbeing.

In this guide, we’ll explore some of the key nutritional factors to consider during cancer treatment and offer practical tips for making healthy dietary choices that can support your recovery.

How Does Cancer Affect Senior Nutrition?

Elderly individuals have reduced energy requirements, but they still require essential nutrients. As they typically consume less food than the average person, their diet should be chosen with care and contain a limited amount of sugary and fatty products. 

It should consist mostly of nutrient-dense foods. However, cancer is a systemic disease that can cause changes to this carefully chosen diet, and cancer therapy may necessitate additional modifications.

Cancer and cancer treatments may also cause side effects that affect nutrition. According to the National Cancer Institute, nutrition problems are likely to arise when tumors involve the head, neck, esophagus, stomach, intestines, pancreas, or liver.

For many patients, the effects of cancer treatments make it hard to eat well. 

Cancer treatments that affect nutrition include:

  • Chemotherapy.
  • Hormone therapy.
  • Radiation therapy.
  • Surgery.
  • Immunotherapy.
  • Stem cell transplant.

Some of the most common cancer and cancer treatments side effects that affect nutrition are;

  • Anorexia
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Dry Mouth
  • Mouth Sores
  • Taste Changes
  • Sore Throat and Trouble Swallowing
  • Lactose Intolerance
  • Weight Gain

Managing Common Side Effects Of Cancer Treatment Through Nutrition

If cancer or cancer treatment results in eating difficulties, adjustments can be made to ensure the patient receives necessary nutrients. Consuming foods rich in calories, protein, vitamins, and minerals is crucial. Meal planning should cater to the patient’s dietary needs and preferences. 

The following are some methods from the National Cancer Institute to help older adults manage or alleviate  common symptoms induced by cancer and cancer treatment. 

1. Anorexia

  • Consume high-protein and high-calorie foods, such as beans, chicken, fish, meat, yogurt, and eggs.
  • Use protein-fortified milk to add extra protein and calories to meals.
  • Eat high-protein foods first when you have the strongest appetite.
  • Limit the amount of liquids consumed during meals.
  • Drink milkshakes, smoothies, juices, or soups if solid foods are difficult to consume.
  • Choose foods that have a pleasant smell.
  • Try new recipes and dishes.
  • Consult with a doctor or registered dietitian before trying blenderized drinks.
  • Eat small, frequent meals and snacks throughout the day.
  • Have larger meals when you feel well-rested and hungry, regardless of the time of day.
  • Prepare small amounts of favorite foods in advance for quick consumption.
  • Stay active to maintain a healthy appetite.
  • Alleviate symptoms and aftertastes by brushing your teeth and rinsing your mouth.
  • Seek medical advice if you experience eating difficulties such as nausea, vomiting, or changes in taste or smell.

2. Nausea

  • Choose foods that appeal to you and avoid those that make you feel sick
  • Opt for bland, soft, and easy-to-digest foods instead of heavy meals
  • Eat dry foods like crackers or toast throughout the day
  • Stick to foods that are easy on your stomach, such as plain yogurt, white toast, and clear broth
  • Have dry toast or crackers before getting out of bed if you experience morning nausea
  • Consume foods and liquids at room temperature, and slowly sip liquids throughout the day
  • To alleviate bad taste in the mouth, try sucking on hard candies like peppermints or lemon drops
  • Avoid strong-smelling foods and drinks
  • Eat 5 or 6 small meals a day instead of 3 large meals
  • Sip on only small amounts of liquid during meals to prevent feeling too full or bloated
  • Don’t skip meals or snacks
  • Rinse your mouth before and after eating
  • Avoid eating in warm, cooking-smelling rooms
  • Sit up or lie with your head raised for an hour after eating
  • Plan the best times for eating and drinking
  • Relax before each cancer treatment and wear loose, comfortable clothing
  • Keep track of when you feel nausea and why
  • Talk to your doctor about taking anti nausea medication.

3. Vomiting

  • Refrain from consuming any food or drink until vomiting ceases.
  • Once vomiting has stopped, consume small amounts of clear liquids.
  • Gradually introduce liquids that are easy on your stomach, such as strained soups or milkshakes.
  • Instead of having three large meals, opt for five or six smaller meals throughout the day.
  • Lean forward and sit upright after vomiting.
  • Consult with your doctor about medication to prevent or manage vomiting.

4. Dry Mouth

  • Choose foods that are easy to swallow.
  • Moisturize food with sauce, gravy, or salad dressing.
  • Consume sweet or tart foods and drinks, such as lemonade, to stimulate saliva production.
  • Chew gum or suck on hard candy, ice pops, or ice chips.
  • Drink water regularly, but avoid alcohol, beer, or wine.
  • Avoid foods that can cause pain or discomfort, such as spicy, sour, salty, hard, or crunchy foods.
  • Keep lips moist with lip balm.
  • Rinse mouth every 1-2 hours, but avoid mouthwash containing alcohol.
  • Avoid tobacco products and second-hand smoke.
  • Consult with a doctor or dentist about using artificial saliva or similar products to coat, protect, and moisten the mouth and throat.

5. Mouth Sores

  • Consume soft foods that are easy to chew, such as milkshakes, scrambled eggs, and custards.
  • Cook food until it is soft and tender and use a blender or food processor to create smooth meals.
  • Soothe your mouth by sucking on ice chips.
  • Consume food that is cold or at room temperature.
  • Drink with a straw and use a small spoon to take smaller bites.
  • Avoid citrus fruits, spicy foods, tomatoes, ketchup, salty foods, raw vegetables, and sharp, crunchy foods.
  • Refrain from drinking alcoholic beverages and using tobacco products.
  • Visit a dentist at least two weeks before beginning immunotherapy, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy to the head and neck.
  • Check your mouth daily for sores, white patches, or red and swollen areas.
  • Rinse your mouth with a mixture of ¼ teaspoon baking soda, ⅛ teaspoon salt, and 1 cup of warm water three to four times per day.
  • Do not use mouthwash that contains alcohol.
  • Avoid toothpicks and other sharp objects.

6. Taste Changes

  • Choose poultry, fish, eggs, and cheese over red meat.
  • Use spices and sauces to marinate foods.
  • Pair meat with sweet items like cranberry sauce, jelly, or applesauce.
  • Experiment with tart foods and drinks.
  • Use sugar-free lemon drops, gum, or mints to alleviate metallic or bitter tastes.
  • Avoid metal utensils and containers if experiencing a metallic taste.
  • Eat favorite foods when feeling well and try new recipes.
  • Look for non meat, high-protein recipes in vegetarian or Chinese cookbooks.
  • Chew food longer to enhance taste.
  • Keep food and drinks covered, use a straw to drink, turn on a kitchen fan, or cook outside to avoid unpleasant smells.
  • Practice good oral hygiene and visit the dentist regularly.

7. Sore Throat and Trouble Swallowing

  • Consume soft foods that are easy to chew and swallow, like scrambled eggs, oatmeal, and cooked cereals.
  • Choose foods and drinks that are high in protein and calories.
  • Moisturize your food with sauces, broth, gravy, or yogurt.
  • Avoid hot, spicy, acidic, crunchy, or sharp foods and drinks with alcohol.
  • Cook your food until it’s soft and tender and cut it into small pieces, or use a blender to make it smooth.
  • Use a straw to drink.
  • Eat five to six small meals throughout the day instead of three big meals.
  • Sit upright and tilt your head slightly forward when eating or drinking and stay upright for at least 30 minutes after eating.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Consult your doctor about tube feedings if you’re unable to consume enough food to stay strong.

Read Also: When Swallowing Is a Struggle: Tips for Supporting Seniors with Dysphagia

8. Lactose Intolerance

  • Use lactose-free or low-lactose milk products, which can often be found at grocery stores and are labeled as such.
  • Select milk products that are low in lactose, like hard cheeses (e.g., cheddar) and yogurt.
  • Try alternatives made from soy or rice, such as soy or rice milk and frozen desserts, as they do not have lactose.
  • Avoid only the dairy products that give you problems, but if possible, consume small portions of dairy products like milk, yogurt, or cheese.
  • Consider incorporating non-dairy options with added calcium into your diet, or consume calcium-rich veggies like broccoli and greens.
  • Take lactase tablets when consuming dairy products to help digest lactose.
  • Prepare your own lactose-free or low-lactose dishes.

9. Weight Gain

  • Eat a lot of fruits and vegetables.
  • Eat foods that are high in fiber, such as whole-grain breads, cereals, and pasta.
  • Choose lean meats, such as lean beef, pork trimmed of fat, and poultry (such as chicken or turkey) without skin.
  • Choose low-fat milk products.
  • Eat less fat (eat only small amounts of butter, mayonnaise, desserts, and fried foods).
  • Cook with low-fat methods, such as broiling, steaming, grilling, or roasting.
  • Eat less salt.
  • Eat foods that you enjoy so you feel satisfied.
  • Eat only when hungry.
  • Consider counseling or medicine if you eat because of stress, fear, or depression.
  • If you eat because you are bored, find activities you enjoy.
  • Eat smaller amounts of food at meals.
  • Exercise daily.
  • Talk with your doctor before going on a diet to lose weight.

Making Healthy Dietary Choices: Tips For older adults With Cancer

Balancing the need for a different diet with the rest of the household can be a daunting task for cancer survivors, caregivers, and their loved ones. The demands of busy schedules and differing opinions may make it difficult to adopt a new, healthier eating approach, and finding or affording healthier options can also pose challenges. 

To overcome these obstacles, here are some tips from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that you can follow but don’t feel pressured to do everything at once. Remember that progress is made through gradual steps.

  • Keep a record of what you eat using a notebook or app
  • Check with your doctor about any dietary restrictions related to medication or allergies
  • Establish a regular meal schedule
  • Begin with small portions of favorite foods if struggling to regain appetite
  • Try healthier versions of favorite recipes from online sources
  • Fill half of your plate with fruits and vegetables, and the other half with whole grains and lean proteins
  • Think of sugar-sweetened foods and drinks, as well as alcohol, as treats for special occasions.

Meal Planning and Preparation Tips For Senior Cancer Patients

Preventing cancer is not solely reliant on selecting nutritious food. The manner in which you preserve, handle, and cook your meals also plays a crucial role. Ensuring the safety of your food is particularly vital when undergoing cancer treatment, as certain therapies can reduce your immunity, putting you at risk of contracting infections.

Foodborne illnesses occur when harmful bacteria, viruses, or fungi infect food, resulting in sickness when consumed.

Here are a few recommendations for maintaining food safety.

  • Wash your hands before and after handling and preparing food
  • Rinse fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating them
  • Use separate cutting boards for meats and vegetables
  • Store meat and fish on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator
  • Do not thaw food on the counter or under warm running water
  • Refrigerate food right after everyone has been served
  • Only consume fully cooked foods (avoid raw fish, oysters, and shellfish)
  • Avoid unpasteurized foods, including drinks such as unpasteurized cider, raw milk, and fruit juices, and foods like cheeses made from unpasteurized milk
  • Never buy food that is past its sell-by or “best by” date
  • If you require assistance with the cost of food during cancer treatment, speak to your healthcare team who may be able to provide resources to help you manage your budget
  • Follow the instructions on how to store your food properly, such as refrigerating foods after opening them.

Before Treatment

According to the American Cancer Society, there are several actions you can take to get ready for any alterations to your eating habits or appetite resulting from cancer treatment. These actions involve;

  • Stock your pantry and freezer with your favorite foods to minimize shopping trips.
  • Include easy-to-eat foods for when you’re sick.
  • Cook in advance and freeze meals in portion sizes.
  • Ask friends or family for help with shopping and cooking, and let them know of any dietary restrictions.
  • Consult with your cancer care team about any concerns regarding your diet and side effects.

During Treatment

It’s advisable to consume a nutritious diet as it enhances your body’s optimal functioning, particularly if you’re battling cancer. By consuming healthy food, you will have adequate energy reserves that will assist you in maintaining your vigor, immunity, and strength throughout treatment. 

Those who eat well can better endure the adverse effects of treatment and might tolerate greater doses of specific medications. 

Consider following these recommendations:

  • Don’t be afraid to try new foods. Some things you never have liked before might taste good during treatment.
  • Choose different plant-based foods. Try eating beans and peas instead of meat at a few meals each week.
  • Try to eat more fruits and vegetables every day in a variety of colors. Colorful vegetables and fruits and plant-based foods have many natural health-promoting substances.
  • Try to stay at a healthy weight, and stay physically active. Small weight changes during treatment are normal.
  • Limit or avoid red or processed meats, sugar sweetened beverages and processed foods.
  • Limit the amount of salt-curated, pickled, or smoked foods you eat.
  • Eat small snacks throughout the day.
  • Keep a variety of protein-rich snacks on hand that are easy to prepare and eat.
  • Avoid snacks that might make any treatment-related side effects worse.

Read Also: Healthy Snacks for Happy Aging: A Guide to Healthy Snacking For Seniors

After Treatment

After cancer treatment, the majority of eating-related adverse effects tend to disappear. However, some side effects such as loss of appetite, dry mouth, altered taste or smell, difficulty swallowing, or weight changes may persist for a while. 

If you experience any of these side effects, it is recommended that you discuss the matter with your cancer care team and create a strategy to address the issue.

Here are some tips for healthy eating after cancer

  • Consult your cancer treatment team about potential dietary limitations or restrictions.
  • Enlist the assistance of a registered dietitian to devise a healthy, balanced meal plan that accommodates any fluctuations in weight that you may have experienced as a result of cancer treatment.
  • Adopt a wholesome dietary regimen that incorporates nutrient-dense foods, an array of colorful fruits and vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Continue avoiding consumption of red and processed meats, sugary beverages, and highly processed foods.
  • It is preferable to abstain from alcohol consumption. However, if you do choose to imbibe, women should consume no more than one drink per day, and men should limit themselves to two.

Staying Hydrated During Cancer Treatment

Apart from the things you eat, hydration is another vital part of your nutrition especially when you are ill or undergoing treatments such as the ones for cancer. Your therapy may result in dehydration in multiple ways including;

  • Side effects such as vomiting and diarrhea 
  • Medication, surgery, radiation therapy, or even the foods you consume while undergoing treatment. 
  • Chemotherapy
  • Having a high temperature which you may be more at risk  when being treated for cancer, due to a possibility of developing an infection that may cause a fever.

Hence, it’s important to stay hydrated throughout your treatment. Here are some ways you can follow to avoid dehydration from WebMd;

  • Drink water throughout the day and not just when you’re parched.
  • Try other liquids if water doesn’t do it for you. 
  • You can consume foods with high water content too.
  • Suck on ice chips if you can’t stomach drinking or eating.

Read Also: Drink Up for Better Health: The Role of Proper Hydration in Old Age


While cancer treatment can be a difficult time, making informed choices about nutrition can help support your body’s ability to heal and recover. 

By staying well-nourished, you can help to maintain your strength and energy levels, manage side effects, and improve your overall quality of life. By following the guidelines outlined in this guide and working with your healthcare team to develop a personalized nutrition plan, you can take control of your health and wellbeing during this challenging time. 

Remember, you’re not alone in this journey, and there are resources available to help you every step of the way.

To learn more about building a healthier diet for you or your older loved one, you may also check out our Senior Diet and Nutrition 101: A Senior’s Guide To Nutritious Life.