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Your feelings about diet problems

Emotional feelings about eating and diet problems caused by cancer and how talking can help.

Emotional reactions

Being diagnosed with cancer and having treatment takes a while to come to terms with. You have to cope with the knowledge of having cancer as well as the physical effects of treatment.

For many of us, eating is a very social event. It can be one of the most enjoyable things we do in life. If you are having problems eating, it can affect your self-image and isolate you from social occasions. This can make you depressed, anxious and lower your self esteem. Cultural and religious beliefs can also play a part in how you feel about food and eating.

If you have advanced cancer

Your whole life has changed. If your cancer is very advanced, you may also be worried about the possibility of dying.

This can be very hard to come to terms with and you may not feel that you can talk about it. But it is better to try and express these feelings with someone that you can trust.

Body changes

It can be very hard to come to terms with the change in your body when you have lost weight. This can be made more difficult if you don't feel like eating.

You might need some sort of help and support during this difficult time. Counselling can help or you may prefer to talk to friends and family or other people who have similar problems.

Dealing with family and friends

Diet problems can be especially difficult for your friends and family to cope with. They want to help but might not feel that they are able to.

They might associate how much you eat with you getting better saying things such as “If only you would eat and put on weight, then I know you would get better” or “I have made this just for you, it is your favourite food”.

Hearing loved ones say this can be very hard, especially so if you really don't feel like eating. Or if even small amounts of food make you feel uncomfortable, full and sick. They want to feel that they are doing something to help. But it may cause conflict between you. This can be very upsetting during a time when both you and your loved ones need support and understanding.

It is important that the people caring for you understand that trying to get you to eat is not going to help. The best thing they can do is just be there for you. If you feel like eating, that's great. But if you don't it is important that they don't push you.

As a doctor explains “Lack of appetite isn't painful, but eating can be”. Knowing this can help your loved ones be more understanding.

Talking about eating

It is good to discuss any changes in your eating habits with the people looking after you. A dietician may also be able to offer you support and help with your diet problems.

Explaining how you feel

Although you might find it hard, you are likely to feel better after talking openly to close family and friends.

You may be concerned that your family won’t cope with hearing how you are really feeling. Or worry that they may be frightened by how bad your eating problems are making you feel.

But sharing worries almost always helps. Sometimes it is enough just to have your family listen to you. They don't need to offer advice. Most people want you to know they care and do not want you to feel isolated or upset. They are only too willing to try to understand and help if they can.

Talking to specialists

You might have a specialist nurse or dietician you can talk to and ask for advice. If you are in a hospice, it is likely that there will be trained people that you can talk to about diet and other problems. Your GP can be another good source of help and support.

You might prefer to talk to someone who will listen to your worries, but is nothing to do with your illness. The cancer information services listed on the Resources and support page can tell you more about counselling services available in your area. It also lists useful books and booklets you can get, some of which are free. 

Other people who can support you

You might feel more comfortable speaking with a religious adviser - the hospital chaplain or a faith leader.

Hospital social workers can be a great support. They can help you sort out practical issues that are worrying you, such as financial problems due to the cost of changes to your diet, and help at home. If your hospital does not have this available ask your nurse who you can contact for this information. 

The main thing is that you do not feel alone. Even if you don't have close family and friends around to help you, other people can help. So let your GP or hospital doctor know if you need support.

Last reviewed: 
06 Jan 2017
  • National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidance
    Improving Supportive and Palliative Care for Adults with Cancer: the Manual – 2004

  • National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidance
    Nutrition support for adults – 2006

  • The Royal Marsden Hospital Manual of Clinical Nursing Procedures (9th Edition)
    Editors: Lisa Dougherty and Sara Lister
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2015

  • Nutrition and Cancer
    Edited by Clare Shaw
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2011

  • Symptom management in advanced cancer (4th edition)
    Twycross R, Wilcock A and Toller S
    Radcliffe Medical Press Ltd, 2009

Information and help

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