Chemotherapy, Radiation Therapy and the Effects on the Gastrointestinal System
November 1st, 2017
As if patients with cancer don’t have enough to think about, the laundry list of side effects of cancer treatment associated with the different options is extensive. Chemotherapy, radiation therapy and other treatment options can have effects on the entire body – not just the area affected by cancer. In particular, chemotherapy and radiation therapy can have negative effects on gastrointestinal function.
Chemotherapy and radiation therapy are designed to destroy rapidly growing and spreading cancer cells. The problem, however, is that cancer cells typically grow and divide much faster than healthy cells, and so oncologists have to treat a larger section of the body to ensure all cancer cells are covered in the treatment area. The treatment process, therefore, often involves damaging healthy cells – including the cells lining the intestine. Intestinal cell damage inevitably leads to digestive discomfort.
Digestive discomfort for patients receiving chemotherapy or radiation therapy often comes in the form of diarrhea, vomiting, nausea and nutrient malabsorption. As a consequence, patients often experience dehydration and a dangerously low appetite. Keeping up a healthy nutritional intake is important because certain cancer treatments are actually more effective when patients are properly nourished.
For many patients, cancer treatments can make it difficult to eat well. Beyond diarrhea, vomiting, nausea and nutrient malabsorption, some of the more common side effects of cancer treatment that affect eating habits include:
- Fatigue or malaise
- Dry mouth
- Dental or gum issues
- Changes in taste or smell
Some cancerous tumors create chemicals that affect the way the body uses certain nutrients, including protein, carbohydrates and fat. This is especially true for tumors of the stomach or intestines. Even if a patient seems to be eating enough, the body might be unable to absorb all the nutrients from the food.
How to Combat Gastrointestinal Side Effects of Cancer Treatment
During chemotherapy or radiation therapy, patients may need to change their diets to help them withstand the effects of cancer and its treatment. Nutrition therapy, or eating certain foods under the guidance of an oncology nurse and dietitian, can help patients deal with the effects of cancer treatment. It may seem counterintuitive, but some patients may need to consume more high-fat, high-calorie foods than other people in order to keep their weight in a healthy range. For patients suffering from diarrhea and related dehydration, a low fiber diet can help to alleviate symptoms. In other cases, there are certain foods made to fight malnourishment in cancer patients.
Nutrition therapy can help patients with cancer:
- Support immune function
- Maintain lean body cell mass
- Rebuild body tissue that’s been damaged through chemotherapy or radiation therapy
- Lower risk for infection
- Increase strength and overall energy levels to fight fatigue and malaise
- Improve tolerance for cancer treatments
- Reduce recovery time following treatment
- Contribute to enhanced overall well-being
Food is one of the few things patients with cancer can directly control in their disease management, and making informed decisions about which foods can help them combat side effects of cancer treatment is a key strategy for fighting the disease.
Disclosure: These are recommendations only. If your side effects are affecting you, it is important to talk with members of your healthcare team.