Proper Nutrition During Lung Cancer Treatment: What Patients Need to Know

What to eat when you don’t feel like eating.

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With more and more people taking an active interest in nutrition, you might hear plenty of “research” from your loved ones about what you should be eating—or not eating—during your lung cancer treatment.

As well-intentioned as these tips may be, it’s important to remember that your loved ones are (probably) neither registered dietitians nor oncologists. It’s also crucial to never make extreme dietary changes to your diet during lung cancer treatment without first discussing it with your doctor.

“You will hear things. You will see things on the internet,” says Jorge Gomez, MD, lung oncologist at Mount Sinai Hospital. “What’s important is to have a healthy, balanced diet to be able to maintain weight during treatment.”

Dealing with Loss of Appetite During Lung Cancer Treatment

“Oftentimes a lung cancer patient may have experienced a significant amount of weight loss,” says Kevin Sullivan, MD, lung oncologist at Monter Cancer Center, Northwell Health.

Lung cancer patients tend to experience more severe loss of appetite and malnutrition than patients with other types of cancer, according to a 2016 article from Lung Cancer: Targets and Therapy. This malnutrition during treatment is associated with a poorer outcome, possibly due to a weakened immune system and poor lung and heart function.

Loss of appetite is common during lung cancer treatment, but it can be caused by a variety of factors:

  • Underlying depression

  • Proteins secreted by tumors

  • Nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy or other treatments

  • Sore throat caused by radiation

“Nutrition is very important—not specific nutrition, but nutrition that will help a patient maintain their weight,” says Dr. Gomez. “In some patients who have no appetite, high-calorie foods are extremely important.”

There are many healthy high-calorie foods to choose from (think avocados and nuts), but even ice cream and Oreos are useful tools to keep weight up during lung cancer treatment. For people with extremely low appetites, any calories are better than no calories.

“If a patient has a significant amount of weight loss, we usually like to start with having the patient at least eat what is appealing to them to begin with,” says Dr. Sullivan. “Sometimes we can supplement that with certain nutritional supplements or [meal] replacements.”

To get more nutrients during lung cancer treatment, try these tips from the American Lung Association:

  • Eat whenever you’re hungry, even if it’s not a typical meal time.

  • Avoid low-calorie foods.

  • Eat several small meals a day.

  • Try liquid or pureed meals if a sore throat is preventing you from eating.

  • Drink mint and ginger teas to soothe nausea.

  • Eat bland foods if you have upset stomach, such as oatmeal, white bread, applesauce, eggs, broth, or low-fat dairy products.

  • Drink plenty of water, which can also help prevent dehydration if you are vomiting.

If you’re still struggling, doctors might also prescribe certain medications that can help increase your appetite, according to Dr. Sullivan.

Tips for Caregivers

If you’re caring for a lung cancer patient, you might feel a lot of pressure to give your loved one the best nutrition possible. This can be further complicated by their stunted appetite.

“Watch what they’re eating and how much they’re eating,” says Dr. Gomez. “If patients are losing weight, or if they’re not eating, it’s important to talk to your doctor because there are things that can be done to improve that.”