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Eating when you have advanced cancer

Find out about how to cope with eating problems when you have advanced cancer. Get tips on how to maintain your weight and boost calories.

Remember that everyone is different and one person might manage foods that cause problems for someone else. You may need some personalised advice from a professional dietitian. You can ask your doctor or nurse for a referral.

Weight loss

People with advanced cancer often have weight loss. As many as 8 out of 10 people (80%) have severe weight loss.

You are likely to find it difficult to digest fat. You might feel sick a lot or sometimes be sick. You may feel too tired to eat or prepare your own meals. Side effects from your treatment, such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy, can also lessen your appetite.

Weight loss can be worrying for you and your family and friends.

Eating

Preparing food is often the last thing you want to do if you are feeling sick or have no appetite. You can ask your family and friends to help you prepare food. 

Small portions of meals that can go in the freezer and be easily defrosted are a good idea. This not only means that you don't have to do the cooking yourself. It also gives your relatives and friends a way of helping you.

Living alone

Many people with advanced cancer feel tired and don't feel like cooking. Buy ready meals at your local supermarket if you don't have the energy to cook and don't have anyone to do it for you.

If you live on your own you might not have any family or friends you can depend on to help with meals or shopping. So it may be more difficult for you to maintain a healthy diet.

You can have an assessment carried out by social services. They should be able to organise a home help for shopping, preparing meals and for general support.

Your district nurse or symptom control nurse will be able to help you organise the social services assessment if necessary.

Family and friends

Most people want to do something to help their ill relative or friend. For many families, preparing and offering food are a major way of showing love and concern. For a patient, this can be wearing if you don't feel like eating.

If you can't or don't want to eat, your carer might feel helpless and frustrated. It can be difficult for you both. But do let the people looking after you know how you feel about eating. It might help to have your nurse or dietitian talk it over with you and your family.

Some booklets and leaflets can be extremely useful in explaining about diet and advanced cancer.

Diet

Your diet can be affected by your treatment and your general health. If you are depressed, you might have less appetite.

What you feel like eating when you are ill is also related to your life-long likes and dislikes. It is important that your nurse, dietitian and doctor know which foods you like and are used to eating.

For example, if you have never liked drinking milk, then you probably won't want to start drinking high calorie milk drinks. These drinks are often recommended for people with cancer to help boost their calorie intake. You can ask to have fruit drink versions of these high calorie drinks instead.

You should see a dietitian before you leave hospital and they will work out a diet plan with you.

Snack and small meals ideas

It might be easier to have smaller meals, rather than the traditional 3 meals a day. It’s a good idea to have plenty of snacks for whenever you feel like eating. You could try:

  • yoghurts or fromage frais
  • dried fruit
  • stewed or fresh fruit (bananas are high in calories)
  • crisps or nuts
  • cheese
  • instant soups (make them up with milk to boost calories)
  • cereal
  • milky drinks
  • chocolate
  • flapjack

Boost your calorie intake

People with advanced cancer sometimes find it hard to eat all the protein and calories they need.

Here are some easy tips for foods that contain lots of calories in one go:

  • Mash vegetables with milk and add some grated cheese and egg.
  • Have porridge with syrup or sugar and cream.
  • Use instant soups or gravies with milk instead of water.
  • Grate cheese into an omelette.
  • Have cooked soft vegetables in dips like hummus and sour cream.
  • Make instant coffee, hot chocolate or Horlicks with full fat milk.
  • Add ice cream, yoghurt and fresh fruit to a milkshake.
  • Dunk your favourite biscuits into tea and coffee.
  • Add a couple of tablespoons of dried milk powder to each pint of milk.
  • Add protein powders and high energy powders to everyday foods.
  • Sip supplement drinks (your doctor can prescribe them or you can get them from a chemist).

Diarrhoea

Some people have problems with diarrhoea after gallbladder surgery. Avoid very high fibre foods such as whole grain bread or cereals and dried fruit, as these may make things worse. Tell your doctor or nurse, as you may need some medicines to control your symptoms. It might be worth seeing a dietitian to plan a diet that suits you better.

Last reviewed: 
24 Jun 2014
  • Cancer and its management (6th edition)
    Tobias J and Hochhauser D
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2010

  • Cancer: Principles and practice of oncology (9th edition)
    VT De Vita, S Hellman and SA Rosenberg
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2011

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