Stress, Eating, and Cancer: What You Should Know


A cancer diagnosis can come with all kinds of stress and anxiety, in fact almost one half of cancer patients report anxiety symptoms.  This anxiety can be about the future, your family, treatment and finances – the list may seem endless at times.  A major area of stress for many cancer patients comes during mealtimes, when food is no longer pleasurable.

What is Food Stress? 

Food anxiety or stress is not well defined, but two oncology dietitians defined it as is when fear around food causes unease or distress in the mind or body. All human beings have to eat several times a day in order to sustain themselves.  But for cancer patients, it’s not as simple as walking into the kitchen.  They may be suffering from physical symptoms like mouth sores or diarrhea that make eating painful or embarrassing.  Or they could have mental symptoms like worrying that the foods they ate in the past caused their cancer or what they eat now could ‘feed’ the cancer.  This fear and worry can start restrictive behaviors that lead to not getting enough nourishment, reducing the effectiveness of cancer treatment and survival. 

What are Sources of Food Stress?

Food stress can be caused by internal and external forces.  If you need to use the bathroom right after eating, this can cause you to avoid eating when in social situations or away from home.  If you heard on social media that eating bacon causes colon cancer, you may become a vegetarian and avoid things that once brought you joy.  Or, you could have a friend who gets disappointed or angry when you don’t eat the cookies she brought over.  A coworker could be constantly sending articles on the ketogenic diet in cancer and you don’t know how to politely ask them to stop.  Maybe your treatment made you gain ten pounds and now you don’t like the way your clothes fit.  This is not an exhaustive list, there are dozens of ways that food and nutrition can cause stress during cancer treatment but what’s key is how you address this anxiety.

How Can You Work Through Anxiety?

First of all, you should always tell your treatment team about any symptoms, including emotional ones.  Certain cancer types or treatments can even cause or worsen anxiety symptoms.  To manage your food-related symptoms, often a first line of defense is to keep a food log for a few days, tracking what you are eating and how you feel afterwards.  Keeping ‘safe foods’ on hand which always make you feel good can be beneficial.

Next, be kind and patient with friends and family.  They may bring over food as a way to show their love and support but you may not feel like eating it then, or ever.  Tell them that they are appreciated, and communicate how you are feeling or what foods you may prefer.  Let them know if it would be more helpful for them to run to the store or walk the dog for you, rather than bringing over another casserole.

Last, make sure your nutrition information is coming from a trusted source.  Your physician and your Registered Dietitian are great points of reference, as are university, hospital, or government websites such as the following:

When Should You Seek Help?

You should always feel comfortable bringing any concerns about symptoms to your cancer care team, including those around nutrition and food.  If you find yourself constantly thinking about food, unable to choose a food to eat because you are worried it will make you physically ill, or are losing weight because you aren’t eating enough these are all definitive signs you should ask to speak with a Registered Dietitian and possibly a therapist to help you manage your stress.  Your treatment team is there to support you in whatever way they can.

Do you have questions about food and nutrition during cancer treatment? Join OncoPower and reach out to our oncologists and Registered Dietitians, available around the clock.  Our goal is to close gaps between patients and providers by providing seamless, remote care. 

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