Advice for family and friends helping somebody with cancer to eat and drink

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People with cancer may suffer from loss of appetite or nausea not only due to their illness but also because they are concerned about their health and treatment. You may find your family member or friend may begin to tolerate food better once their treatment has started and they know what to expect. In the meantime, here are a few ideas that may help you at this difficult time.

• Help your friend or family member to find out more about their illness and treatment – many people feel more in control when they know what they are facing.
• Learn about the eating problems they may experience and any possible side effects of treatment. Encourage your friend or family member to ask for help from their treatment team when needed.
• Keep snacks within easy reach for your friend/family member so they are able to eat when they want to.
• You may suggest they drink plenty of nourishing fluids when they have no appetite, e.g. full fat milk, milky drinks, fruit juice, and sugary drinks.
• Small portions of food served on a side plate may seem more manageable; large plates of food may put somebody who is not hungry off eating all together.
• Food preferences may change, so try not to take it personally during the course of treatment or illness when people decline foods they previously enjoyed.
• Perhaps you can offer to help with food shopping or meal preparation.
• It might be helpful to ‘batch’ cook some meals and freeze them into portions or buy some ready meals so that quick and easy meal options are always available.
• Enjoyment is more important than healthy eating and some people find it reassuring to be told it is ok to eat what they enjoy.
• Consuming snacks throughout the day rather than ‘proper’ meals is fine and these can still be nutritious, e.g. a bowl of cereal with milk.
• Diets for diabetes or heart problems may often be relaxed when somebody is not eating very well; however, this is not the case for diets for kidney or liver disease. A dietitian or consultant can provide further guidance on this.
• Putting too much pressure on your loved one to eat may put them off eating, so try to have a relaxed environment at meal times. Try to remember that nobody is to blame; as the eating problems are usually caused by the illness and side effects of treatment.
• Ask a member of the nursing team to provide you with a copy of the Macmillan recipe book, ‘Eating Problems and Cancer’ booklet and/or the ‘Building Up Diet’ booklet.

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