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Your feelings about diet problems

Having diet problems when you have cancer can affect you emotionally. But there are things you can do to help you cope.

Emotional reactions

It takes a while to come to terms with being diagnosed with cancer and having treatment. 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. Having problems with eating can affect your self-image. You might feel isolated during 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

With advanced cancer, your whole life has changed. If your cancer is very advanced, the worry about dying might also be on your mind.

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.

Anxiety about eating

Problems with eating and drinking may be distressing. You might feel anxious when you or someone close to you have cancer. When you are looking after someone who is ill, it is natural to want to feed them up.

It might be too hard for you to eat enough. And you might feel you are disappointing your relatives and friends who are trying to help.

There may be times when treatment side effects or your illness affect your appetite. At these times you will lose weight. Eat what you like when you feel like it. This can help to make sure you have as many calories as possible. If you feel like a big bowl of ice cream with chocolate sauce, have one!

Body changes

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

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

Dealing with family and friends

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

Family and friends often think that when you eat more, you will get better. They might say 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 people say this can be very hard, especially so if you don't feel like eating. Or if even small amounts of food make you feel uncomfortable, full and sick. They want to think that they are doing something to help. But it may cause conflict between you. This can be very upsetting. During this time you and your loved ones need support and understanding.

It can be helpful if 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 to be there for you. If you feel like eating, that's great. But if you don't it is more helpful that they don't push you.

Doctors often explain that the lack of appetite isn't painful, but eating can be. Knowing this can help your loved ones to be more understanding.

Talking about eating

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

Explaining how you feel

You are likely to feel better after talking to close family and friends about your diet problems. This might be hard to do though.

You may worry that your family won’t cope with what you're feeling. Another worry might be that you will upset them.

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 dietitian 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 has nothing to do with your illness. You can ask your doctor or specialist nurse or dietitian to refer you to a counselling service. 

Other people who can support you

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

Hospital social workers can be a great support too. They can help you sort out practical issues that are worrying you. These might be financial problems due to the cost of changes to your diet and help at home. Your hospital might not have a social worker. Ask your specialist 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.

Information and help

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About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.