When a Cancer Patient Stops Eating: Coping Strategies That Work

When a cancer patient stops eating, it can be concerning for their loved ones and caregivers. Cancer treatments often cause side effects such as nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite, which can lead to malnutrition and weakened immune system. Coping strategies can help the patient maintain their nutrition and prevent complications. Here are some tips for caregivers on how to support their loved ones who have cancer-related eating issues:

Consult with a healthcare provider

It is important to consult with a healthcare provider about the patient’s dietary needs and limitations. A registered dietician can provide individualized recommendations based on the patient’s medical history, treatment plan, and preferences. They may also suggest nutritional supplements or alternative feeding methods such as tube feeding or intravenous nutrition if necessary.

Offer small, frequent meals

Offering small, frequent meals rather than large meals can help the patient feel less overwhelmed and more likely to eat. The patient may also prefer to eat at different times than usual or to have snacks throughout the day rather than traditional meals.

Provide nutrient-dense foods

It is important that the foods provided to the patient are nutrient-dense for optimal health benefits. Foods high in protein such as eggs, dairy products, and lean meats can help maintain muscle mass. Fresh fruits and vegetables can provide important vitamins and minerals. Whole grains and other sources of dietary fiber can promote healthy digestion and prevent constipation.

Encourage hydration

Staying hydrated is essential for cancer patients. Drinking water, fruit juices, and clear broths can help the patient stay hydrated without excessive calorie intake. Avoiding caffeine and alcohol, which can dehydrate the body, is also recommended.

Be mindful of taste changes

People undergoing cancer treatments may experience changes in taste, such as a metallic or bitter taste in their mouth. In such cases, caregivers can offer foods with strong flavors which can overwhelm unpleasant tastes. Adding spices, herbs, and sauces can also help in the stimulation of appetite.

Consider non-food rewards

Positive reinforcement can encourage the patient to eat. Rewards need not be limited to foods; non-food rewards such as reading a book, going for a walk, or having a movie night can act as motivators too.

Monitor for side effects

Cancer treatments can cause side effects, such as vomiting or diarrhea. Coping with side effects may involve adjusting the patient’s diet, such as offering bland or soft foods when vomiting or offering more fluids when diarrhea is present. Monitor the patient’s symptoms and report any concerns to their healthcare team.

Stay patient and positive

It can be frustrating for caregivers when patients do not eat well, but staying patient and positive can make a big difference. Being supportive, encouraging, and reminding the patient that the body needs optimal nutrition to cope with cancer and treatments can provide motivation.

Provide emotional support

Coping strategies involve not just physical wellness but also emotional wellness. Cancer not only affects the body but also causes mental stress, anxiety and depression. Caregivers can remind the patient that it is natural to feel such emotions and encourage the patient to talk openly about their feelings. Seek help from counselors or support groups when needed.


Cancer is a difficult illness that requires patients, caregivers, and healthcare providers to work together to provide optimal care. Coping strategies can be different and varied but required to maintain the optimal health of the patient. By consulting with a healthcare provider, providing nutrient-dense food, encouraging hydration, being mindful of taste changes, monitoring for side effects, staying patient and positive, providing emotional support and considering non-food rewards caregivers can help loved ones undergoing cancer treatment maintain their nutrition and achieve the best possible outcome.

Most common questions and their answers related to “When a cancer patient stops eating”

  • 1. What should be done when a cancer patient stops eating entirely?
    A. If a patient stops eating entirely and is unable to meet their nutritional needs through oral intake, other feeding methods such as tube feeding or intravenous nutrition may be necessary. Consult with a healthcare provider in such scenarios.
  • 2. What foods are best for cancer patients having eating problems?
    A. Nutrient-dense foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, dairy products and high-fiber foods are recommended for cancer patients.
  • 3. How important is hydration for cancer patients?
    A. Staying hydrated is essential for cancer patients, drinking enough fluids can help reduce the chances of malnutrition and reduced immunity.
  • 4. What non-food rewards can be offered for cancer patients to encourage eating?
    A. Rewards need not be limited to foods, non-food rewards such as watching a movie, reading a book or going for a walk can be offered as incentives.
  • 5. How can caregivers provide emotional support for cancer patients who are struggling with eating?
    A. Caregivers should encourage patients to talk openly about their feelings to reduce stress and anxiety, seek emotional support when needed, remind them of the importance of optimal nutrition for good health and offer distractions such as meditation or art therapy.


American Cancer Society. Nutrition for People with Cancer. https://www.cancer.org/treatment/survivorship-during-and-after-treatment/staying-active/nutrition/nutrition-for-people-with-cancer.html . Accessed 27th December 2021

National Cancer Institute. Nutrition in cancer care (PDQ) – Health professional version. http://www.nci.nih.gov/ppdq/cancersurvivorship/nutrition. Accessed 27th December 2021

American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). Coping with cancer-related weight changes and muscle loss. https://www.cancer.net/cancer-types/liver-cancer/statistics . Accessed 27th December 2021

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