Eating is often a problematic endeavor for a cancer-stricken senior.
Chemotherapy can cause nausea and alter a person's senses of taste and smell—all of which can have a negative effect on a person's appetite, and the weakness and fatigue associated with not getting enough nutrients can give a tumor the upper hand.
Stewart Fleishman, M.D., Founding Director of Cancer Supportive Services at the Continuum Cancer Centers of New York, says, "Eating is not an optional activity; it fuels the body during treatment and gives you the building blocks to repair."
Fleishman, author of, "Learn to Live Through Cancer: What You Need to Know and Do," says that depending on the type and stage of the cancer, a senior may require as many as 8,000 calories a day.
How do you make sure a cancer-stricken senior is getting the nourishment they need?
An elder undergoing treatment may not want to down a big plate of pasta and chicken every night, but there are a few things you can do to help your loved one stay fueled for the fight:
- Be wary of wavering weight: While many cancer sufferers struggle to fend off weight loss, Fleishman says that some people have the opposite problem. For instance, women with breast cancer may find themselves grappling with packing on extra pounds. Chemotherapy for breast cancer reduces the levels of estrogen and progesterone (two hormones that help regulate weight) in a woman's body. As a result of cancer treatment, many women go through a hyper-speed version of menopause—complete with hot flashes, stiff joints and weight gain. Fleishman cautions caregivers to be on the lookout for changes (losses and gains) that surpass 10 percent of a senior's normal body weight.
- Make breakfast big: A cancer-sufferer will typically be more inclined to eat earlier in the day, according to Fleishman. He says it's important to take advantage of this and encourage your loved one to eat a substantial morning meal. Smoothies, soft, whole-grain cereals and fruit are all great sources of calories and fiber (which can help fight off constipation, a common chemotherapy side-effect).
- Spice up their servings: A senior's taste-buds can take a beating during cancer treatment, which can make eating a less appealing experience. The American Cancer Society (ACS) proposes mixing things up with flavor combinations that vary from what your loved one is used to. Their cancer-safe spicing suggestions include: chili powder, onion, basil, garlic, oregano, rosemary, barbeque sauce and tarragon.
- Don't dodge family meals: An often overlooked side-effect of diminished appetite in people with cancer is a reluctance to participate in social events that center around food, Fleishman says. This can make a cancer sufferer feel more isolated from friends and family. Social support is a vital piece of the cancer recovery puzzle. Researchers from the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center found that women who had a strong social support network benefitted from a 40 percent reduction in their risk of relapse.
- Color their plate: Dining on deep colored fruits and vegetables can supply a host of essential nutrients that can help your loved one combat cancer, Fleishman says. Fresh or frozen varieties are preferable to canned, when it comes to nutritional value and taste, says the ACS.
- Blend it up: Home-made smoothies, soups and stews can be super sources of sustenance for a cancer-stricken elder. Aim to use healthy ingredients such as fresh fruits, vegetables, yogurt, and low-fat milk. You may also want to consider adding protein powder, or peanut butter for an extra protein boost.
- Limit unsavory smells: A cooler dining area and cooler foods can cut down on smells that may be unappetizing to a senior undergoing chemotherapy, according to the ACS. Try to pick foods that don't need to be cooked or heated.
- Use snacks to slip in calories: In between meals, encourage you loved one to nosh on fruit, yogurt, peanut butter, or even hard-boiled eggs. The key is to try to stick to nutritious, yet calorie dense foods.
- Get them moving: Cancer treatment can leave a loved one feeling drained and in pain, but even small amounts of physical activity can help by boosting both their appetite and mood. Other benefits of exercise can include: reduced nausea, greater self-esteem, lowered feelings of anxiety and improvements in strength and balance.