Diet and nutrition when living with oesophageal cancer
Oesophageal cancer itself and cancer treatment place extra demands on your body. It is very important to maintain good nutrition before, during, and after cancer treatment. Treatments may involve surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, immunotherapy, or a combination of these. These treatments can cause you to lose your appetite and energy, putting you at an increased risk for malnutrition.
On this page:
> The role of the oesophagus and the digestive system
> Tips on maintaining good nutrition during treatment
> Diet and nutrition changes with oesophageal cancer
> Common treatment side effects that impact diet and nutrition
> Recovering from surgery
Your food choices when you have cancer and are undergoing treatment may be very different from what you are used to eating. The main goal is to try to keep your weight constant, maintain muscle strength, maintain a healthy weight, and have more energy, all of which help your body to heal properly, improve your quality of life and give you the energy to cope with all the new challenges treatment may bring.
The role of the oesophagus and the digestive system
The oesophagus is part of the digestive system. The oesophagus is a muscular tube, about 25cm long, with a sphincter (valve) at each end. Its function is to transport food and fluid, after being swallowed, from the mouth to the stomach. No absorption of nutrients takes place in the oesophagus. A mouthful of food which has been chewed and swallowed is called a bolus, this is then propelled from the throat into the oesophagus and down into the stomach to be digested. Any disease or treatment targeting the oesophagus can affect digestion.
Tips on good nutrition during treatment
Good nutrition can help to:
- manage the side effects of treatment
- speed up recovery after treatment
- heal wounds and rebuild damaged tissues after surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy or other treatment
- improve your body’s immune system and ability to fight infections.
Overall, try to make food choices that provide you enough calories (to maintain your weight), protein (to help rebuild tissues that cancer treatment may harm), nutrients such as vitamins and minerals, and fluids (essential for your body’s functioning). Exercise can also help with appetite and digestion issues related to treatment.
Good nutrition during treatment:
- You may need more energy (kilojoules/calories).
- Eat small, frequent meals or snacks, rather than three large meals a day.
- Ask for a referral to a dietitian – discuss eating issues, weight issues, muscle loss.
- Do some light physical activity, such as walking, to improve appetite and mood, reduce fatigue, help digestion, and prevent constipation.
- Check with your doctor or dietitian before taking vitamin or mineral supplements or making other changes to your diet.
- Relax dietary restrictions, e.g. choose full-cream rather than low-fat milk.
- Consider using nutritional supplements if you cannot eat enough – discuss options with your doctor, palliative care specialist or dietitian.
Oesophagus cancer diet and nutrition changes
Oesophageal cancer and the associated treatments change how your body functions. Managing these changes is important for your nutritional health, your recovery, and to make you feel better in general. Treatments can affect people differently. You may have no side effects, some, or all of them, but there are plenty of things you can do to improve your general wellbeing. We will explain the side effects of cancer treatments, and how to manage them.
Stomach cancer may impact:
- your nutritional requirements and what you need to eat
- how much you eat
- your appetite
- your ability to digest food
- your ability to maintain your weight and muscle mass
- your energy levels and general wellbeing.
Common treatment side effects that impact diet and nutrition
A common side effect of treatment is feeling extreme and constant tiredness (fatigue).
Fatigue can be caused by treatment side effects that reduce the number of red blood cells (anaemia).
Tips on fatigue:
- Plan ahead for when you feel too tired to cook. Prepare food in advance and store in the freezer.
- Cook when you have more energy.
- Shop online for groceries.
- Ask and accept offers of help with shopping and cooking from family and friends.
- Do regular exercise to help improve fatigue and appetite.
- Keep snacks handy e.g. in your bag or car.
- Use services such as Meals on Wheels or other home delivery meal companies that bring pre-prepared food to you.
- Eat with others.
You may lose your appetite because of the effects of cancer itself, the treatment, or other side effects, such as feeling sick, not enjoying the smell of food, or feeling upset.
Tips on loss of appetite:
- Eat small meals frequently, e.g. every 2–3 hours. Keeping to a regular eating pattern rather than waiting until you are hungry will mean your body gets the nourishment it needs to.
- Use a smaller plate – a big plate of food may put you off.
- Eat what you feel like, when you feel like it – have cereal for dinner or a main meal at lunch.
- Include a variety of foods in your diet.
- Sip fluids throughout the day.
- Replace water, tea and coffee with drinks or soups that add energy (kilojoules/calories), such as milk, milkshake, smoothies, replacement drinks or soup.
- Relax dietary restrictions – maintaining your weight or regaining weight you have lost is more important than avoiding full-fat and other high-energy foods.
- Gentle physical activity can stimulate appetite – take a short walk around the block.
- Eat with others.
Some treatments and their side effects can change the way some foods taste or smell. Chemotherapy can change the taste receptors in the mouth. Food may taste bitter or metallic, or may not have as much flavour as before.
You may say things like “Food tastes like cardboard”, “Food tastes metallic”, or “I’ve gone off things I used to enjoy eating”.
It is common to have taste changes and it can take several months for taste changes to return to normal.
If you have a sore mouth, mucositis, thrush, sore throat or swallowing difficulties, talk to your doctor, speech pathologist, dentist or dietitian – some suggestions will not be suitable.
Tips on taste changes:
- Add extra flavour to food if it tastes bland – like fresh herbs, lemon, lime, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, honey, chilli, or pepper.
- Experiment with different food, as your tastes may change.
- If meat tastes bad during treatment, replace it with other protein sources like cheese, eggs, nuts, dairy foods, baked beans, lentils, or chickpeas.
- Add small amounts of sugar to food if it tastes bitter or salty.
- Use a straw when drinking.
- Change from using metal cutlery to plastic or bamboo cutlery.
Tips on smell changes:
- Eat cold food or food at room temperature (hot food smells more).
- Reheat pre-prepared meals in the microwave so the cooking smell doesn’t put you off.
- Stay out of the kitchen, if possible, when food is being prepared.
- Ask family or friends to cook.
- Use the exhaust fan, open the kitchen window or cook outside to help reduce cooking smells.
Feeling sick and vomiting are often side effects of cancer, its treatment, or some medicines. They often occur together, but not always.
Is stomach discomfort and the sensation of wanting to vomit. Nausea can be a precursor to vomiting the contents of the stomach and may be caused by treatment, stress, food odours, gas in the gastrointestinal tract, motion sickness or even the thought of having treatment.
Tips on how to cope with nausea:
- Have a light snack before treatment and wait a few hours before eating again.
- Eat small meals 5–6 times during the day. Going without food for long periods can make nausea worse.
- Snack on dry or bland foods, e.g. crackers, toast, dry cereals, bread sticks or pretzels
- Choose cold foods or foods at room temperature instead of hot, fried, greasy or spicy foods.
- Eat and drink slowly and chew your food well.
- Try foods with ginger, e.g. ginger biscuits, or ginger beer.
- Avoid foods that are overly sweet, fatty, fried, spicy or oily, or that have strong smells.
- Brush teeth regularly to help reduce unpleasant tastes that may make you feel nauseated.
- Do not eat your favourite food when feeling nauseated to avoid developing a permanent dislike
- Suck on hard lollies – flavoured with ginger, peppermint, or lemon.
- Try ginger food and drink items, such as candied ginger, ginger beer, ginger ale, or ginger tea. Talk to your dietitian doctor or pharmacist about ginger supplements.
- Take anti-nausea medicines as prescribed. Let the doctor know if the medicines don’t seem to be working.
Is the forcible emptying (“throwing up”) of stomach contents through the mouth. Vomiting can follow nausea and may be caused by treatment, stress, food odours, gas in the gastrointestinal tract, motion sickness or even the thought of having treatment.
Vomiting is more serious than nausea. Vomiting can cause dehydration and increase the risk of malnutrition. See a doctor if you are vomiting for more than one day, especially if you cannot keep water down.
Tips on how to cope with vomiting:
- See your doctor if you can’t keep fluids down, or if vomiting lasts for more than 24 hours, as you may become dehydrated.
- Take small sips of water or clear liquids, such as ginger ale, soda water or sports drinks like Gatorade or Hydrolyte. Dilute sweet drinks. If you feel like a fizzy drink, open it, and let it sit for 10 minutes or so, and drink it when it’s a bit flat. Sucking on crushed ice cubes or an iceblock can be soothing.
- Once you are handling step 1 okay, try some different drinks, such as consommé and clear broths, weak tea, herbal tea, fruit drinks, beef and chicken stocks. Have small, frequent meals and snacks throughout the day.
- Introduce bland, starchy foods, such as plain biscuits, bread or toast with honey or jam, peanut butter, rice, yoghurt or fruit. Trying to attempt small, frequent servings.
- Consume a little bit more each time until you are eating a well-balanced diet.
After treatment chewing and swallowing may be difficult and painful. Surgery, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy can cause temporary problems.
People with dentures who have lost weight may also find their teeth become loose, which can make eating difficult.
Signs that you are having problems with chewing and swallowing include taking longer to chew and swallow, coughing or choking while eating or drinking, or food sticking in your mouth or throat like a ball.
Tips on chewing and swallowing:
- Change how you prepare your food by chopping up smaller or pureeing.
- Let your doctor know that you are having issues and get a referral to see a speech pathologist and dietitian.
- A speech pathologist can monitor your ability to swallow and suggest modifications to the texture of your food once your ability to swallow and chew begins to improve. A dietitian can ensure you are meeting your nutritional needs.
Types of food textures:
- Soft – can be chewed easily and need little cutting. Sauce or gravy can be added to make it softer.
- Minced and moist – easily form into a ball in the mouth. Food should be easily mashed with a fork. Lumps should be soft and rounded with no hard or sharp bits.
- Smooth pureed – is food that is smooth, moist and have no lumps similar in consistency to pudding.
Some chemotherapy drugs and some pain medicines can make your mouth dry, cause mouth ulcers, or change the amount of saliva in your mouth. A dry mouth can increase the risk of tooth decay and infections such as oral thrush, which will make eating harder.
Tips to lesson discomfort with mouth sores:
- Suck on ice cubes.
- Eat soft foods – stews, soups, scrambled eggs and smoothies.
- Cold foods and fluids may be more comfortable than hot.
- Avoid ‘coarse’ foods that can irritate your mouth, such as crackers, toast, nuts and seeds.
- Avoid spicy or very hot foods.
- Use a straw and direct liquids away from the areas where mouth sores are most painful.
- Talk to your doctor about medication or mouth washes to help manage the pain and allow you to eat more comfortably.
- Ulcers may also be present in your digestive tract, causing discomfort in the stomach or bowel and diarrhoea.
Tips to relieve a dry mouth:
- Suck on ice cubes.
- Keep your mouth clean with regular mouthwashes to prevent infections.
- Gargle with 1⁄2 tsp salt or 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda in a glass of water.
- Choose an alcohol-free mouthwash to avoid irritating your mouth further.
- Use a soft toothbrush when cleaning your teeth.
- Ask your dentist or health care team about suitable mouth rinses or oral lubricants.
- Limit alcohol and coffee as these are dehydrating fluids, and avoid smoking.
- Avoid ‘coarse’ foods that can irritate your mouth, such as crackers, toast, nuts and seeds.
- Avoid spicy or very hot foods.
- Soften food by dipping it into milk, soup, tea or coffee.
- Moisten with sauce, gravy, cream, custard.
- Sip fluids with meals and throughout the day.
- Chew sugar-free gum to stimulate the flow of saliva.
Living with cancer and its treatments can result in changes to your bowel habits. This could be differences in the appearance, consistency, and/or the smell of your stools.
This is when your bowel motions are infrequent and difficult to pass. It can be caused by different factors including: regularly taking opioid medicines; having a diet low in fibre; not getting enough exercise; not having enough fluids to drink (dehydration); or having a low overall food intake.
Tips on how to manage constipation:
- Soften stools by drinking 8–10 glasses of fluid a day, e.g. water, herbal tea, milk-based drinks, soup, prune juice.
- Eat foods high in fibre, e.g. wholegrain breads, cereals or pasta; raw and unpeeled fruits and vegetables; nuts and seeds; legumes and pulses.
- If you are increasing the amount of fibre in your diet, increase fluids to prevent the extra fibre making constipation worse.
- Ask your doctor about using a laxative, stool softener and/or fibre supplement.
- Exercise – check with your doctor, exercise physiologist or physiotherapist about the amount and type of exercise that is right for you.
This means your bowel motions are watery, urgent and frequent. You may also get abdominal cramping, wind and pain. Frequent loose stools can occur because you are not digesting food or absorbing nutrients properly, cancer treatment, medicines, infections, reactions to certain foods and anxiety can all cause diarrhoea.
Diarrhoea can result in dehydration, so it’s important to stay hydrated by drinking extra fluids. Every time you have a loose bowel movement you should drink an extra cup of non-caffeinated fluid. If you have diarrhoea for several days, see your doctor so he/she can determine the cause and help to manage your diarrhoea. Your doctor may decide to prescribe you anti-diarrhoea or over-the-counter medication. In some cases, Creon © may be recommended.
Tips on how to manage diarrhoea:
- Drink plenty of fluids to avoid becoming dehydrated. Water and diluted cordials are better than high-sugar drinks, alcohol, caffeinated fluids – remember signs of dehydration are smaller amounts of dark urine.
- Choose low-fibre foods, e.g. bananas, mashed potato, rice, pasta, white bread, oats, steamed chicken without the skin, white fish.
- Avoid foods that increase bowel activity, e.g. spicy, fatty or oily foods; caffeine; alcohol or artificial sweeteners.
- Try soy milk or lactose-free milk if you develop a temporary intolerance to milk (lactose).
- Don’t eat too many raw fruit and vegetable skins and wholegrain cereals as they may make diarrhoea worse.
- Avoid foods and drinks that are high in sugar, such as cordial, soft drinks and lollies – especially if you’ve had a Whipple’s procedure.
- Avoid foods sweetened with artificial sweeteners such as sorbitol, mannitol and xylitol. These are often marketed as ‘sugar-free’.
- It may also help to eat small, frequent meals throughout the day, rather than three large meals.
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Some cancers and treatments can cause heartburn, which is a burning sensation in the upper chest, oesophagus and/or throat. It is caused by the contents of the stomach coming back up into the oesophagus (reflux).
Heartburn may make you feel too uncomfortable to eat much, which could lead to weight loss. If the tips below do not relieve heartburn, let your doctor know as medication may help.
Tips to manage heartburn:
- Avoid large meals; try to eat 3 small meals and 3 small snacks throughout the day.
- Eat slowly and take the time to enjoy your meal. Avoid wearing tight clothing while eating, especially belts.
- Sip fluids between meals, rather than drinking large amounts at mealtimes.
- Limit or avoid foods that may make heartburn worse, e.g. chocolate, highly seasoned spicy foods, high-fat foods (e.g. fried food, pastries, cream, butter and oils), tomato and tomato products, citrus fruits, coffee (including decaf), strong tea, soft drinks and alcohol.
- Straight after eating, sit upright for at least 30 minutes and avoid lying down or activities that involve bending over (e.g. gardening).
Recovering from surgery
Surgeries used to treat cancer may result in a variety of side effects, including weight loss and diarrhoea. The side effects usually only last for a short period of time, but you may have to make some changes to your diet to ensure that you are getting enough nutrition and maintaining your weight.
Your body needs good nutrition after surgery and it is an important part of your recovery process. If you are struggling to eat or drink, the hospital may prescribe nutrition supplements, or recommend tube feeding, to help you to maintain weight and provide you with the nutrients you need for speedy recovery.
Tips on maintaining weight after surgery:
- Monitor your weight – weigh yourself once or twice a week to monitor for any weight loss.
- If you are losing weight, tell your doctor and get a referral to see a dietitian.
- Eat small, frequent meals after surgery so your digestive system only has to deal with a small amount of food at a time.
Some patients have trouble taking in enough nutrition after surgery for stomach cancer. Further treatment like chemotherapy with radiation can make this problem worse. To help with this, a tube can be placed into the intestine at the time of gastrectomy. The end of this tube remains outside of the skin on the abdomen. Through this, liquid nutrition can be put directly into the intestine to help prevent and treat malnutrition.
Types of feeding tubes:
- Gastrostomy tube – PEG, PEJ
- Nasogastric tube (NG tube)
- Nasojejunal tube (NJ)
Caring for your feeding tube:
- Check type of tube feed is right for your needs.
- Follow the hygiene rules, wash hands before and after feeds, keep syringes & equipment clean & dry.
- Check that the feeding tube is in the right position before feeding – your care team will show you how to do this.
- Flush the tube through before and after adding the feed (or medication) to avoid blockages – follow the instructions provided by your dietitian.
- Position yourself in an upright position when feeding.
- Clean around the insertion site every day.
- Look after the skin around the tube to avoid irritation.
- Make sure that you stay hydrated by having water through the tube (speak to your dietitian to discuss how much water you can use) or orally if safe, appropriate, and agreed with healthcare team.
- Keep your teeth and gums healthy by cleaning teeth twice a day even if you are not feeding or drinking through the mouth.
We recognise that dietary changes have a huge impact on everyone with cancer. It can take a while to get used to changes to your diet and lifestyle, but finding ways to manage your diet and symptoms can help you feel more in control. It can also be helpful to speak to your dietitian, doctor or nurse. Alternatively get in touch with our PanSupport team if you have any questions relating to material on this page.