Nutrition and Childhood Cancer
During Treatment

Good nutrition is important for all children. A child with a cancer diagnosis may have additional nutritional needs or challenges.

Children with a cancer diagnosis may face challenges when it comes to nutrition. Side effects from cancer treatment such as nausea, vomiting, decreased appetite, or mouth sores can make it difficult to make good food choices or eat enough nutrient-rich foods. During and after cancer treatment, children may lose weight or develop more slowly. Children may also gain weight due to steroids or decreased activity.

Ask your child’s doctor for a referral to a registered dietitian with expertise in pediatric oncology nutrition.

Tips to Boost Food Intake

During cancer treatment, your child may have difficulty eating. Your child may experience nausea or vomiting. Mouth sores may make eating painful. Treatment can change your child’s sense of taste and smell so he or she may turn down foods once enjoyed. Or, your child may not have much of an appetite or desire for food. Here are some tips to help increase food intake.

  • Regularly offer favorite, easily tolerated foods. Even if you child says, he or she is not hungry, seeing the food may spark an appetite. If your child asks for a specific food, try to provide it.
  • Take note of when your child’s appetite is best. Provide as much nutritious food as possible during this time.
  • Always keep snacks available in case your child does feel hungry . If your child is in school, ask your child’s teacher to allow your child to have snacks in class.
  • Make meal time fun by eating together as a family. Have a “picnic” in the living room or backyard. Use colorful plates and cups or plates with favorite cartoon characters. (Stick with plastic utensils. Metal utensils can leave a metallic taste in the mouth.)
  • Get rid of distractions like toys, games, and TV at meal times.
  • Do not force your child to eat or to clean the plate. This may make eating even less appealing.
  • Keep strong odors away that may trigger nausea. Use cups with lids and straws. Serve foods at room temperature as hot foods tend to have a stronger smell.
  • Let your child sip water between meals instead of at meals to leave more room for food.
  • Add extra calories to dishes by adding in high-calorie foods. For example, use whole milk in cereal, add cheese to cooked vegetables, or dip apple slices in peanut butter. Click here for more ideas.
  • If your child is struggling with mouth sores, prepare soft, bland foods that are easier to eat. Cold foods like popsicles, smoothies, and milkshakes can also help soothe a sore mouth.

Always alert your child’s healthcare to new or worsening side effects. For more tips and strategies for side effect management, visit our Nutrition By Side Effect page.

Vitamins and Supplements

Food is the best source for the vitamins and nutrients your child needs. However, during cancer treatment your child may have difficulty getting enough calcium and vitamin D which are important to build strong bones. Ask your child’s doctor or a registered dietitian if your child may need a multivitamin or other supplement. Do not give your child any vitamins, minerals, or supplements without consulting your child’s healthcare team first.

 

Resources

The American Cancer Society

Children’s Oncology Group: Treatment Side Effects