Tips for Managing Oral Cancer Treatment Side Effects
Try these simple strategies to ensure that you get enough nutrition while recovering from surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation.
If Food Doesn’t Taste Right
Both chemotherapy and radiation can alter your taste buds in ways that change the food’s flavor or leave it flavorless. Goldberg has heard her patients complain of food being too salty, too sweet, or having a metallic taste.
“You can change your foods around to counteract what’s happening in your mouth,” she says. If food tastes too sweet, switch to more savory menu items. If it tastes metallic, use plastic cutlery instead of silverware. Suck on a lemon (as long as your mouth isn’t sore) or chew gum before you eat to stimulate saliva production and mask the unpleasant taste.
Brush your teeth often using a gentle toothpaste like Sensodyne or Tom’s of Maine. “The cleaner your mouth, the better your food will taste,” Goldberg says.
If You’re Not Hungry
Getting enough nutrition is easier said than done when you have no appetite.
Goldberg suggests bulking up your daily calorie count with smoothies in flavors that appeal to you. Start with a base of high-fat Greek yogurt or whole milk. Add avocado to thicken the drink and provide healthy fat. Sprinkle in some protein powder. And stir in nut butter for added flavor and calories.
If Your Mouth Is Dry
Dry mouth is a by-product of damage to your salivary glands after head and neck radiation, according to the American Cancer Society. The dryness can make eating certain foods uncomfortable.
Keep your mouth hydrated by sipping on water throughout the day. Eat more moisture-rich foods, such as ice pops, watermelon, and applesauce, and fewer dry foods such as crackers and toast.
You can buy products at your local drugstore to relieve dry mouth. Goldberg recommends XyliMelts. They’re little tabs that stick to your gums and continue to release moisture into your mouth for hours.
If Your Mouth Is Sore
Mouth sores can be a symptom of the cancer or a side effect of chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Your doctor can recommend a solution to numb the inside of your mouth and make it less painful to eat.
You can also rinse your mouth throughout the day with a mixture of 1 teaspoon of salt and 1 teaspoon of baking soda to increase your comfort, according to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Eat soft, bland foods to avoid irritating any open sores.
If You Have Nausea
Your doctor has medicine to relieve this common chemotherapy side effect, but changing the way you eat can also help. If the smell of cooking food triggers nausea, eat it cold or at room temperature. Sip on ginger tea or ginger ale to calm your stomach. And eat small, frequent meals instead of three large ones.
If It’s Difficult or Painful to Swallow
Swallowing difficulty, which your doctor calls dysphagia, can be from a tumor in the throat or leftover scarring from radiation treatment, according to MD Anderson Cancer Center. An evaluation from a speech and language pathologist is important to make sure you can swallow safely without choking, says Goldberg.
A sore throat is another possible effect of radiation therapy. To get around painful or difficult swallowing, she suggests eating soft, moist, easy-to-swallow foods such as smoothies, applesauce, yogurt, soup, and cottage cheese. “These foods don’t require a lot of chewing and they don’t require a lot of effort to swallow,” Goldberg says. If it hurts to eat or swallow, avoid foods that are acidic (citrus fruits like oranges and limes) or spicy.
Will You Need a Feeding Tube?
If eating becomes so difficult that you’re becoming malnourished or dehydrated, you and your doctor will discuss whether it’s time to place a feeding tube. Try not to think of a feeding tube as the end of eating. “Look at it as just a pair of crutches,” Goldberg says. “You can have a feeding tube and still take food orally if it’s safe for you to swallow, but now you don’t have the pressure.”
This tube — placed either through your nose or directly into your stomach — will ensure you get the nutrition and hydration you need to thrive. Usually, it’s just a temporary solution for a few weeks or months while you heal from surgery.
Everyone’s experience with oral cancer is unique. How this cancer affects your ability to eat depends on which treatments you have and how your body reacts to them.
Let your treatment team know what challenges you’re having so they can recommend solutions. It’s also helpful to work with a dietitian — most cancer treatment centers have at least one on staff — who can tailor your diet to your issues and nutritional needs.