Managing Treatments

Gastrointestinal Cancers: Tips to Optimize Your Nutrition and Improve Your Health

Nutrition is an important part of therapy after you've been diagnosed with gastrointestinal cancers. Unfortunately, these similar cancers create a lot of barriers to eating a healthy, nutritious diet. It may be uncomfortable to eat, causing abdominal pain or nausea. If you are losing weight, feeling nauseous, or just want to improve your nutrition, following these few tips will help you improve your diet and hopefully improve your quality of life.

Nutrition is an important part of therapy with gastrointestinal cancers. Unfortunately, these cancers create a lot of barriers to eating a healthy, nutritious diet. Eating may be uncomfortable, causing abdominal pain or nausea. If you are losing weight, feeling nauseous or just want to improve your nutrition, following these tips may help.

Eating Strategies

Some people have trouble eating and drinking as they did prior to stomach surgery. Often times, the type of surgery that treats gastrointestinal cancers can result in the removal of part of your stomach; the size of your meals and how often you eat may need to change. Instead of the traditional three large meals, you should plan up to six small meals and snacks throughout the day. This is to prevent something called dumping syndrome, when food and drink moves into your intestines too fast and you get cramping, bloating and sometimes nausea and vomiting. Even if you have not had stomach surgery to treat your cancer, this eating strategy may help if you are having any gastrointestinal symptoms.

Supplement Your Meals with Medicine

While switching to six smaller meals should help improve your symptoms, it won’t work for everyone. If you are still feeling nauseous or bloated, or feel full after just a few bites, you may want to ask your doctor about medicine you can take to ease your discomfort. If you are feeling nauseous with meals, anti-nausea medicines can really help if you take them prior to eating. If you feel like you are getting full too quickly, you may have something called gastroparesis, where your stomach and intestines don’t push the food forward well, resulting in back-up into your stomach. In this case, talk with your doctor about medications to stimulate your intestines. If you get nauseous when you even think about food, or just don’t feel hungry, an appetite stimulant may help.

What to Eat and What to Avoid

One major complication of stomach surgeries is vitamin deficiency, especially of iron, B12, calcium or Vitamin D. Iron and B12 are essential for your red blood cells, and without them, you can become very anemic. B12 deficiency can also lead to numbness and tingling in your hands and feet. Calcium and Vitamin D are essential for bone health, and you can develop early osteoporosis if you do not get enough in your diet.

Patients suffering from gastrointestinal cancers should seek out the guidance of a dietitian because symptoms and side effects can greatly vary between different cancers and treatments. Generally, a plant-based diet with a focus on lean sources of protein like chicken and fish, and some healthy fats like avocados sprinkled in, will serve you well in maintaining nutrition and managing symptoms. You may also want to talk to your medical team about adding supplements depending on what your stomach can handle.

A pamphlet put out by the National Cancer Institute recommends that you cut down on sweets like desserts and soda. While it’s always important to stay hydrated, they recommend that you take liquids before and after (not during) mealtimes.

Treatment for gastrointestinal cancers can cause a lot of side effects that can be difficult to deal with. When these side effects impair your ability to get proper nutrition, it can cause further health problems if they are not addressed early on. Using these strategies can prevent vitamin deficiencies and minimize your symptoms. If you are still unable to eat, you should discuss further options (such as feeding tubes of other types of artificial nutrition supplementation) with your doctor.

Have you been diagnosed with stomach or gastrointestinal cancers? What strategies have you used to help you eat a well balanced diet after surgery? Start a conversation in the comments below!

Larry Istrail
Larry Istrail