Nutrition and cancer help for carers

Preparing food for someone with cancer can be difficult and sometimes frustrating. There are many reasons why the person may not be able to eat what you have prepared. Some people just don’t feel like eating.

To understand your feelings a little better, remember we often express our love or feelings for someone by giving food. If this food is not accepted, for whatever reason, it is natural to feel upset. If you try to make food less of an issue, it can reduce stress for everyone.

  • Become involved and understand the nutrition needs of your loved one or friend. Go to appointments with the dietitian if appropriate.
  • Encourage and support, but try not to focus on lack of eating and drinking.
  • Be prepared for your loved one or friend to experience taste changes from day to day, particularly during treatment periods.
  • Make sure there is food at home that is ready–to–eat for when they feel like eating. For example, tinned fruit in the cupboard or yoghurts in the fridge, and a frozen meal in the freezer.
  • Be flexible and willing to try new ideas or recipes.
  • Eat together as often as possible as people often eat better with company.
  • Accept that a well balanced diet may not be achievable, and your loved one or friend may only want a small range of foods. Try not to worry as it is often for a short period of time. A dietitian will be able to advise you of useful supplements.

If your child has cancer

The nutritional needs of children with cancer are different to adults, as children continue to grow and develop during treatment. Maintaining a healthy weight is also important as becoming overweight can affect children’s tolerance of treatment and long–term health. Your doctor and dietitian will monitor your child’s weight and growth closely during treatment.

It is hard as a parent to watch your child struggle to eat and drink, but try not to make an issue of your child’s reluctance to eat. Instead, maximise their nutrition by encouraging nutritious, high energy foods when they are feeling well.

A child may use food to express anger, despair or frustration at being sick or being different from others. It may help to:

  • Continue normal daily routines as much as possible, as these will help your child and the rest of the family feel more stable
  • Consider sitting down at the table for a family meal at least once daily
  • Regular mealtimes are important times for families to share, and it will help your child feel part of the family
  • Make mealtimes as relaxed as possible – your child can sit with the family even if he or she doesn’t eat or chooses to eat something different.
  • Let your child have food anytime, not just at meal times,so that nourishing snacks supplement small meals.
  • Be flexible in meal patterns and food choices – allow your child to have breakfast cereal for dinner if that’s what they prefer.
  • Allow your child to occasionally have fatty or sugary foods like chips and chocolate. These foods may be useful high energy snacks if they are all your child wants to eat. Any nourishment is better than none, but don’t let these foods become a habit.
  • Use the time between treatments, while there are no side effects, to make up for any nourishment your child may have missed during treatment.
  • Have takeaway food occasionally, to tempt fussy eaters.
  • Avoid eating in front of the television as it can be distracting.
  • Encourage your child to make mealtimes special by letting her or him plan the table setting, using decorated paper cups, coloured drinks, centrepieces or other features.
  • Introduce novelties such as fancy drinking straws, patterned plates, coloured eggs or vegetables cut into interesting shapes. For a younger child who is kept home from school, try a picnic or brown paper lunch bag.
  • Try to avoid food becoming a bargaining tool or a source of anxiety for either you or your child.
  • Explain the reasons for good nutrition to older children. This may encourage them to eat when they feel up to it.

Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for a free copy of Talking to Kids About Cancer.

Looking after yourself

Caring for someone who is unwell can be exhausting and stressful, and even more so if you are not used to cooking and doing household chores. Try to look after yourself – give yourself some time out and share your worries and concerns with somebody neutral such as a counsellor or your doctor. If you can, try to arrange some time off for rest. Accept offers of help from family, friends and neighbours.

Many cancer support groups and cancer education programs are open to carers, as well as people with cancer. Support groups and some types of programs can offer valuable opportunities to share experiences and ways of coping.

There are support services available to help, such as community transport, shopping services, Home Help, and Meals on Wheels or visiting nurses. Carers Australia, the national body representing carers in Australia, can provide you with information and support.

Carers Australia works with Carers Associations in all states and territories. Phone 1800 242 636 or visit for more information and resources.

Many of these services can be used on a short– or long–term basis and arranged by a social worker, doctor or nurse.

This information was last reviewed in June 2013

This information has been reviewed by: Jenelle Loeliger, Head – Nutrition Department, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Kate Aigner, Cancer Information Consultant, Cancer Council Helpline ACT; Ian Anderson, Consumer; Anna Boltong, PhD Candidate (Dietitian), Department of Cancer Experiences Research, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Clare Hughes, Nutrition Program Manager, Cancer Council NSW; Bridget Kehoe, Public Health Coordinator (Nutrition and Physical Activity), Cancer Council QLD; Steve Pratt, Nutrition and Physical Activity Manager, Cancer Council WA; and Roswitha Stegmann, Helpline Nurse, Cancer Council WA.

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