Dakota Travel Nurse Home Care

Keeping home an option!

Caring for a Cancer Patient with a Poor Appetite

Little foodSometimes cancer or cancer treatment can affect a patient’s appetite. A poor appetite can be caused by many things, such as trouble swallowing, depression, pain, nausea, or vomiting. (See our previous blogs on caring for patients with pain and/or nausea and vomiting.) A poor appetite can also be due to a changed sense of taste or smell, feeling full, tumor growth or dehydration. Though a patient might not feel like eating, it’s important to do what you can to maintain their calorie, protein and fluid intake during cancer treatment.

Caregivers or family members can unintentionally add stress by trying to force patients to eat certain foods. Keep in mind that in some cases, such as advanced cancer, eating may not affect the outcome of the illness or treatment. In these situations, check with the doctor to as how carefully you need to follow specific dietary guidelines.

What caregivers should look for:

  • Lack of interest in food
  • Refusing to eat favorite foods
  • Weight loss 

What the patient can do:

  • Talk with your doctor about what may be causing your poor appetite.
  • Eat as much as you want to, but don’t force yourself to eat. Eat more when you’re hungry.
  • Try light exercise an hour before meals. Regular exercise may help stimulate your appetite. Ask your doctor whether exercise is safe for you.
  • Start the day with breakfast.
  • Eat small, meals more frequently, when you get the urge to eat. Try foods high in calories that are easy to eat (such as pudding, gelatin, ice cream, sherbet, yogurt, or milkshakes).
  • Try strong flavorings or spices, but avoid smells that make you sick.
  • Try shakes and instant drink mixes. Nutritional supplement drinks, such as instant breakfast mixes and canned or powdered shakes, can provide a significant amount of calories and require little or no preparation. It may be easier for you to drink rather than to eat something.
  • Drink liquids between meals instead of with meals. (Liquids can lead to early fullness.)
  • Eat a snack at bedtime. It won’t ruin your appetite for a regular meal.
  • Experiment with foods. Once-favorite foods may no longer appeal to you, while foods you were never fond of may become appealing.

What caregivers can do:

  • Think of food as a necessary part of treatment.
  • Select foods with a variety of colors and textures to make meals more appealing to the patient.
  • Cold or room temperature foods may be more appealing, particularly if strong smells bother the patient. Cold sandwiches or main-dish salads, such as pasta salad or tuna, chicken, egg and ham salads, are good choices.
  • Add sauces and gravies to meats, and cut meat into small pieces to make it easier to swallow.
  • If the patient never seem to feel hungry, it’s often helpful to provide meals according to a schedule rather than to rely on appetite.
  • Try giving the patient 6 to 8 small meals and snacks each day.
  • Offer starchy foods (such as bread, pasta, or potatoes) with high-protein foods, such as fish, chicken, meats, turkey, eggs, cheeses, milk, tofu, nuts, peanut butter, yogurt, peas, and beans.
  • Keep cool drinks and snacks within the patient’s reach. Cheese, dried fruit, nuts, peanut butter or cheese with crackers and muffins are examples of high-calorie snacks requiring little or no preparation. Don’t be too concerned that some of these options are high in cholesterol or fat. Once patients regain their appetite, you can focus on lower calorie snacking options.
  • Create pleasant settings for meals. Soft music, conversation, and other distractions may help the patient eat better. Eat with the patient and/or encourage family members to do so.
  • Offer fruit smoothies, milkshakes, or liquid meals when the patient doesn’t want to eat.
  • Try plastic forks and knives instead of metal if the patient is bothered by bitter or metallic tastes.
  • Don’t blame yourself when the patient refuses food or can’t eat.

Call the doctor if the patient:

  • Feels nauseated and cannot eat for a day or more
  • Loses 5 pounds or more
  • Feels pain when he eats
  • Does not urinate for an entire day or does not move bowels for 2 days or more
  • Does not urinate often, and when they do, the urine comes out in small amounts, smells strong, or is dark colored
  • Vomits for more than 24 hours
  • Is unable to drink or keep down liquids
  • Has pain that is not controlled

DTN Home Care can assist you or your loved one who is undergoing chemotherapy treatments and may be suffering from a lack of appetite. Our licensed and experienced caregivers can help in a number of ways, including:

  • Prepare meals that ensure healthy living and promote recovery
  • Provide companionship
  • Make the patient more comfortable
  • Help the patient stay free from infection
  • Do housekeeping chores
  • Run errands

To inquire about in-home healthcare from DTN Home Care for yourself or a loved one, call 701.663.5373.

The following links provided many of the tips in this blog. Click to find more helpful information.





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