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Eating and drinking

Learn about the ways cancer and its treatment can affect the way you eat and drink, and ways to make it easier to cope.

Difficulty swallowing

Radiotherapy to the nasal cavity and neck can make your mouth and throat very sore. You will almost certainly have difficulty swallowing for a while.

If your mouth and throat are very sore, your doctor will give you strong painkillers to help you to swallow more easily.

Surgery involving your jaw and mouth will make eating and swallowing difficult until you recover. Swelling after surgery may also cause problems.

After large operations, you will most likely have a tube into your stomach for liquid feeds. This will normally be a nasogastric tube (NG tube). Or you may need to have a gastrostomy (PEG) tube put directly into your stomach.

Even if you are not eating, it is very important to keep your mouth and teeth clean. This will help to stop infection developing and help you to feel better.

You may find a soft diet easier to manage if you have a painful throat.

Dry mouth

Radiotherapy to your head and neck can cause a dry mouth. You may hear your doctor or nurse call this xerostomia (pronounced zero-stow-mee-a).

This may last for several months but some people find that the dryness is permanent. It can make eating and talking very uncomfortable.

If you have trouble with a dry mouth, your doctor can prescribe artificial moisteners for your mouth or stimulants for your salivary glands.

You may find it helps to carry a bottle of water with you all the time, so you can keep taking small sips to moisten your mouth. 

Keeping your mouth moist is not just to make you more comfortable. You are more likely to get an infection, or tooth decay if your mouth is dry. So you will need to keep an eye on this and have regular check ups with your dentist.

There is some evidence to suggest that treatment with acupuncture may help with dry mouth after radiotherapy to the head and neck area.

Loss of taste

Radiotherapy and some chemotherapy drugs may also affect your taste buds. Some people say their food has a metallic, bitter or salty taste. Others complain that all foods taste the same.

If you have surgery to your nose, your sense of smell will be poorer than it was. In turn, this will affect your sense of taste.

Many of us don't realise, but the scent of food contributes a great deal to our appetite and how food tastes.

Weight loss

Sometimes people have often lost quite a bit of weight by the time they are diagnosed with cancer. You may have had pain swallowing for a time, which has put you off eating.

After your treatment, you need to build yourself up again. But this can be difficult if you’re still off your food.

You may need to think carefully again about your diet. We are all so used to being told to eat low fat products these days that it can be difficult to stop when you are trying to put on weight. But using whole milk and full fat versions of yoghurts can give you extra calories compared to low fat ones.

If you are really off your food, eating little and often is easier to cope with than a huge plate of food. Ask your doctor to prescribe you some nutritional supplements. These drinks have all the vitamins, protein and carbohydrate that you need for a balanced diet. If you are trying to put weight on, you can sip these through the day as well as eating meals. The drinks come in many flavours these days, both savoury and sweet. Available brands include Ensure, Fresubin, Complan and Build Up.

You can also get powdered protein or carbohydrate supplements to sprinkle on foods and drinks. A dietician can help you plan a suitable diet and give advice on supplement.

Difficulty chewing

If you’ve had surgery to your sinuses or jaw bone (maxillectomy), you may not be able to open your mouth easily. This can make it difficult and painful to chew.

This will probably be temporary until things heal up and you will gradually start to chew properly again. Until then you will need to eat a soft diet, probably for a few weeks or longer.

In some cases, you may need to have reconstructive surgery or a new false part made (prosthesis) to put inside your mouth and help bring back a normal mouth movement.

Information and help

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About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.