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Nutrition and lifestyle for mesothelioma patients change after being diagnosed with this aggressive cancer. Mesothelioma patients benefit from a healthy diet, physical activity, and other positive lifestyle changes to feel better and support difficult treatments.
Listen to Your Physician
First and foremost, heed the advice of your doctor. If you have been prescribed specific dietary guidelines (such as a low-fat diet or a low-sodium diet), that should be your primary consideration. The same goes for physical activity. If your doctor has prescribed rest, then rest.
Listen to Your Body
If you are disgusted by hot foods or can’t stand to eat in the evening, listen to your body. There is nothing wrong with choosing cold foods or eating only when you are hungry.
Many people undergoing cancer treatment prefer to eat more food earlier in the day and less at night. It’s better to listen to your body than to force yourself to eat when you don’t feel well.
What Are the Main Goals of Nutrition for Cancer Therapy?
Most people eat well to optimize their health and to feel good. The same is true for cancer patients, but with a few differences. The primary goals of healthy eating for someone with mesothelioma are:
- To stay as healthy as possible for as long as possible
- To manage symptoms and side effects of treatment
- To be able to tolerate more aggressive treatments
- To improve quality of life
What Should I Eat if I Have Mesothelioma?
When you are recovering from a mesothelioma treatment such as surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy, your body’s ability to digest and absorb nutrients may change. Do everything you can to maintain a healthy weight and meet your nutritional needs to avoid losing muscle mass.
Your exact needs are individual to you, so talk to your medical team about specifics. In general, a healthy, balanced diet includes:
- Vegetables. A variety of vegetables should make up a big proportion of what you eat daily. Include vegetables of all colors.
- Fruit. Also include a variety of fruits. When not in season, choose frozen fruit or canned fruits without added syrups.
- Proteins. Choose lean proteins like chicken, fish, dairy, eggs, and plant-based sources like beans, nuts, and soy.
- Whole grains. Limit white and refined grains, like white rice, pasta, and bread. Instead, choose whole grains for more vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
- Nuts and seeds. A variety of nuts and seeds provide protein, fiber, and a lot of micronutrients and trace minerals.
- Healthy fats. There are many benefits of healthy fats, like omega-3 fatty acids. You can find them in olive oil, walnuts, chia seeds, and flax seeds.
- Water. Drink plenty of water every day and limit sugary drinks like pop and juice.
In addition to healthy foods, patients should avoid or limit foods high in sugar, saturated fat, and salt. Limit processed foods and alcohol.
Healthy Eating Tips for Mesothelioma Patients
Eating a healthy and well-balanced diet is important, but mesothelioma patients run into more challenges than most people. Here are some tips to help you when eating is difficult and to address specific needs.
Try Smaller Meals and Eat More Frequently
Three balanced meals per day are great for most people — but it doesn’t work for everyone, and it may not work for you during treatment if you find your appetite decreased (or even obliterated).
If you would rather “graze” throughout the day or eat several smaller meals more often, that’s fine — do what you have to do to get food in and keep it there.
Keep Your Fiber Content High
If your treatment causes digestive problems like constipation, you should eat more fiber. Plant-based foods like oatmeal, bran, vegetables, and fruits all contain fiber and tend to have a mild or pleasant flavor — ideal for someone who may be nauseous due to chemotherapy.
It’s Okay to Avoid Foods that Make You Feel Ill
Many cancer treatments affect smell and taste, and nausea is a frequent side effect of chemotherapy. If the smell of eggs nauseates you, don’t feel bad. It is normal to dislike some foods during cancer treatment.
If avoiding those foods keeps you from anorexia (loss of appetite) or vomiting, then don’t eat them. Stick with foods that are appealing and nutritious, and avoid foods that make you ill.
More Solids, Fewer Liquids at Mealtime
If you have trouble eating enough nourishing food or keeping it down, it’s important to make mealtimes count by filling up with wholesome foods and drinking fewer liquids.
It’s nice to have a glass of water to wash down a meal, but if you fill up on water and don’t have room left for dinner, you should drink fewer liquids and eat more solids.
Be Aware of Food Safety
If you have mesothelioma and are undergoing treatment, your immune system is probably compromised. It’s particularly important to be aware of food safety issues and to avoid contamination with food-borne pathogens. Follow these tips to limit illness:
- Rinse fresh produce thoroughly before eating
- Wash your hands before preparing foods
- Follow proper food storage guidelines
- Avoid cross-contamination by keeping raw meat away from other foods
- Make sure all foods are fully cooked before eating them
- Keep an eye on sell-by dates on foods
- Avoid unpasteurized foods, like raw milk or cheese
Malnutrition and Weight Loss in Mesothelioma Patients
Many mesothelioma patients struggle to maintain a healthy weight. Cancer patients often lose their appetite or have symtpoms—mouth sores from chemotherapy, abdominal pain, GI distress—that make eating difficult.
This can result in weight loss, malnutrition, and ultimately cachexia, muscle wasting. Focus on adding calories and protein wherever you can. A high-calorie shake with a full complement of nutrients, a protein shake, or a smoothie can help add calories quickly.
Mesothelioma Patients Benefit from Working with a Dietician
Your medical team may include a dietician. If not, they can recommend one. Dieticians work with cancer patients to prescribe specific diets. They can help you decide what’s best to eat and troubleshoot problems, like not eating enough, inadequate protein, or specific deficiencies.
Your diet goals may be difficult if your appetite shrinks or you have difficulty swallowing. A registered dietitian can help you understand the symptoms that interfere with your goals and how to get around them.
Diet and the Side Effects of Treatment
Treatments for mesothelioma can cause side effects that make you uncomfortable or hurt. Side effects may even affect your appetite or your ability to absorb nutrients. A balanced diet following the above guidelines will help, but specific diet tweaks may counteract certain side effects:
- Dry mouth and dehydration. Eat foods that are nutritious and have high water content, like milkshakes, fruit, and gelatin. Avoid salty and dry foods.
- Diarrhea. Avoid foods and ingredients that exacerbate diarrhea, like spicy foods, alcohol, caffeine, fatty and fried foods, and raw vegetables.
- Constipation. Increase your fiber intake with foods like bananas, whole grains, and greens, and take fiber supplements. Drink plenty of fluids.
- Loss of appetite. To get all the nutrition you need despite your loss of appetite, try nutritional shakes. Eat smaller meals more often, and eat foods that you do find appetizing, especially calorie-dense foods like nuts.
- Mouth sores. Avoid foods that irritate your mouth, like spicy and salty foods. Opt for blander, softer foods. Mashed vegetables, smoothies, and milkshakes are good choices.
- Nausea and vomiting. Avoid any food that makes you feel nauseated, usually strong-smelling foods; instead, try bland, plain foods like plain toast, rice, or pasta.
Supplement and Vitamins
Nutritional supplements such as high-calorie or high protein beverages may be beneficial. Though many patients are interested in vitamin and mineral supplements, physician opinions differ on their usefulness. Some may be too strong for your system or may affect your treatment.
Do not take any vitamins or minerals without first asking your doctor. They may prefer a specific supplement to address a particular deficiency. Remember that food is generally a better source of vitamins than pills.
Does Exercise Help Mesothelioma?
Moving around during and after cancer treatment is beneficial if you can. Maintaining your physical abilities will help you feel better while keeping bones and muscles strong. Regular exercise can improve your balance and keep your muscles from becoming weak.
Exercise also contributes to your overall health, keeping your heart and lungs strong and improving your circulation. Getting up and moving around gives you a better sense of well-being and improves your quality of life. It will make you feel less dependent upon others and give you more energy.
Before you embark upon any exercise program, check with your physician. Remember to start slowly, as treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy may have diminished your ability more than you realize, or muscles may have been cut during surgery.
How to Combat Fatigue from Cancer Treatment
Both chemotherapy and radiation tire you out. This can make you resistant to exercise since you feel you need to rest. Unfortunately, this type of fatigue will not improve with rest and can jeopardize the health of your muscles and bones.
One of the best ways to get over this symptom is through a routine of aerobic exercise. Getting out into fresh air and exercising at light-to-moderate intensity will likely help you feel much better.
Manage Stress and Anxiety
Besides taking care of your physical health, your lifestyle choices after a mesothelioma diagnosis should support good mental and emotional health.
Surround yourself with a positive support system, including friends and family as well as other cancer patients in support groups.
Try relaxation techniques to maintain good mental health, such as yoga, meditation, or any other activities you find relaxing, including reading or listening to your favorite music.
Any activities that promote relaxation and that are good for mental health will improve your overall quality of life. Consider talking to a mental health professional or therapist to learn more coping skills.
Lifestyle choices may not cure cancer, but they make a big difference. Avoid smoking, drinking, overworking, or socializing too much; instead, make positive choices that will help your body heal, like a good diet, good nutrition, exercise, social support, and relaxation techniques. These will help you feel better as your treatment works to beat cancer.Get Your FREE Mesothelioma Packet
Page Medically Reviewed and Edited by Anne Courtney, AOCNP, DNP
Anne Courtney has a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree and is an Advanced Oncology Certified Nurse Practitioner. She has years of oncology experience working with patients with malignant mesothelioma, as well as other types of cancer. Dr. Courtney currently works at University of Texas LIVESTRONG Cancer Institutes.