Breast Cancer: Diet Tips

You may feel tired and smells may nauseate, but it's important to keep your energy up during treatment. Here are some suggestions.

By Jayne Garrison
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Cynthia Haines

How do I maintain a healthy diet when I'm nauseated?
What helps when I have mouth sores or dry mouth from chemo?
Is my weight going to change a lot?
What do I do about constipation?
How can I regain strength in my arm?
Am I ever going to get back in shape again?

How do I maintain a healthy diet when I'm nauseated?

There are many good anti-nausea drugs today, so not every woman has a severe problem. Still, even mild or moderate nausea is enough to ruin your diet! Between the treatment and the stress, many of us turn to comfort foods that settle the stomach: mashed potatoes, crackers. But there are healthier alternatives, as well as little tricks that can help you through treatment.

Smoothies are nutritious and often easier to eat than other foods. They're so popular today that you can find plenty of recipes online or in most cookbooks. If you really aren't eating well, add a supplement drink like Ensure or Slimfast to your smoothie for the extra nutrition. Many softer, cooler foods also appeal during treatment. This is a good time to explore the yogurt shelf at the store. Also, experiment with alternatives to those comfort foods of childhood. Mashed sweet potatoes have more vitamins than regular mashed potatoes. So does oatmeal. And you don't need to load either up with butter for flavor!

A nice, warm cup of soup may help you feel better. But remember, a cup is better than a bowl. Eating small amounts can help both your nausea and your weight.

Ignore traditional mealtimes and eat when you feel like eating. Some people find their appetite is better in the morning. In that case, eat your large meal then, and a snack at night.

Your doctor will tell you that you need to drink a lot of fluid during chemo. Don't ignore the advice! Those fluids help flush away the toxins in your body. You may find that water doesn't sit well on your stomach. You might try green tea or ice tea.

It is harder to eat healthy during treatment, but it's worth your effort to give it a try. You really do need those nutrients to build your strength to withstand the side effects of treatment. Even the National Cancer Institute will tell you that people with good nutrition withstand chemo better. Also, you'll feel better after treatment if you don't gain too much weight.

What helps when I have mouth sores or dry mouth from chemo?

Chemotherapy and radiation therapy can reduce your saliva and cause dry mouth. Expect mouth sores or tender gums as well, because treatment pummels your immune system. Here are a few tricks that may help.

When you have dry mouth, keep water by your side and take small sips to help you swallow and talk. Sweet, tart foods like lemonade help create more saliva -- but don't try this if you have mouth sores. Also, you may find that adding gravy or sauces to food will help you swallow bites more easily.

Some women have found that sucking on a peppermint, ice chips or a Popsicle during chemo can help keep mouth sores from developing.

If you do get mouth sores, frozen smoothies or yogurt may be easy to eat. Usually, soft, cool foods help. Sucking on ice chips also feels good. Don't be shy about pureeing your food in a blender before you eat; you need all the nutrition you can get! And try eating warm broth through a straw.

Make sure to call your doctor if you develop persistent mouth sores. There's a concoction called "magic mouthwash" that your doctor can prescribe (it usually contains Benedryl, Maalox, or Mylanta, and an anti-ulcer medication called sucralfate or a pain reliever called lidocaine). You can also ask your doctor about anesthetic lozenges or sprays to numb your mouth while you eat.

Is my weight going to change a lot?

Most women expect to lose weight during treatment. Instead, you may find that you gain about 15 to 20 pounds. It turns out that treatments for breast, ovarian, and prostate cancer often cause some weight gain.

This is another reason to try to eat well during treatment. If you haven't gone through menopause, you probably will have by the time you end treatment. Your metabolism may slow down slightly. Healthy substitutes for comfort foods (like mashed sweet potatoes instead of mashed potatoes) and appetizer portions (a cup of soup instead of a bowl) will help keep your stomach settled without blowing your waistline.

The time to plan how you're going to handle food during treatment is now. Let's face it, during chemo you may feel too tired to do anything vigorous. You may also feel overwhelmed by your emotions. Women who gain weight often say they wished someone had emphasized this risk before treatment. So we're passing this insight along to you now. Just so you know.

What do I do about constipation?

Treatment causes constipation. Your doctor can prescribe medications, but there are also natural solutions you can try.

Drink a lot of fluids, at least eight glasses a day. Also, have a hot drink about one-half hour before you usually have a bowel movement. If your doctor says you can eat a lot of fiber, add beans and fruit to your daily diet. They're especially easy to eat if pureed.

If you can, walk every day. That will help your digestive system more than you might imagine.

How can I regain strength in my arm?

Your doctor will probably tell you not to put more than 15 to 20 pounds of weight on your arm after your surgery. If you have lymph nodes removed, or if your arm was radiated, you're especially at risk for lymphedema, or swelling in your arm. It's really important to exercise and to do the right exercises!

Don't try to work this out all by yourself. Ask your doctor or your health plan to refer you to a physical therapist. They won't deny you after surgery, but they also won't offer a therapist if you don't ask. It's your right. Take it.

Do your arm exercises every day, gradually extending your reach until you regain your full range of motion. Some women do their exercises in the shower, where the warm water allows the muscles to move more freely. Eventually, work up to using the arm for chores, such as dusting, writing, or weeding.

If you have a warm pool nearby, try taking an aquatic exercise class. Water provides helpful resistance you don't get on land. You might even call your local chapter of the American Cancer Society to see if there's a class especially designed for women recovering from breast surgery.

Am I ever going to get back in shape again?

Nearly every woman asks this question. The truth is, if you love to exercise and you were in good shape before, you'll get back in shape again. If staying fit was a struggle, well, it's even more of a struggle now. But it may cheer you to know that, several years after treatment, some women in WebMD's breast cancer community are actually trimmer and fitter than they were before!

Some practical suggestions: Start exercising early, start gradually, and try to do a little something every day. What works well for many women? Walking, bicycling, and aquatic exercises.

A brisk 30- or 40-minute walk can actually help your mood and make you feel strong. If you like to bike, start again once your arm has healed. (It's great for your legs!)

If you have a warm pool nearby, look into aquatic exercises. One woman worked out at the pool every day, just swooshing her arm back and forth in the water. She regained full range of motion in just two weeks.

The important trick is to tell yourself you're going to work out just a little every day. Often women who aim to work out 3 days a week find they forget. Suddenly a week slips by. Those who try to work out each day may occasionally miss a day, but are less likely to slip off the program.

You might also call your chapter of the American Cancer Society or the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation to see if they know of any group exercise programs just for women with breast cancer. It's more fun to work out with buddies, and you could make some new friends in the process!

Originally published October 2001.

Medically updated August 2004.

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Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005