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The Association of Retired Americans (ARA) is a national-not-for-profit membership organization. For over 40 years, ARA has helped active Americans secure a better life while keeping a no political agenda policy.

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How to Manage the Effects of Chemotherapy on Seniors: Tips for Using Food as Medicine

by Jim Vogel

Chemotherapy wreaks havoc on the body. While the chemicals are meant to fight cancer, they often have unpleasant side effects. Common side effects of traditional chemotherapy include fatigue, pain, mouth and throat sores, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, constipation, blood disorders, nervous system effects, changes in thinking and memory, sexual and reproductive issues, appetite loss, and hair loss.

Doctors may offer medications to prevent and treat side effects, but seniors often balk at taking more medicine. It’s is important that the loved ones of the senior cancer patient ensure they are eating the right types of food to manage the effects of chemotherapy. Here are a few tips for using food as medicine:

Foods to reduce nausea

Nausea is one of the side effects of chemotherapy that food most effectively manages. While seniors may have lost their appetite due to chemo, it is important for them to eat and stay hydrated to keep up their strength and help their bodies fight cancer. A few foods that are most effective at combatting nausea in senior cancer patients include those with minimal odor such as dry cereal, toast, or crackers. These foods should be consumed in the morning to stave off nausea caused by low blood sugar. It’s also a good idea for seniors to keep these foods by the side of the bed to snack on before bed or in the middle of the night to avoid an empty stomach.

Staying hydrated also reduces nausea. Rather than gulp liquids, seniors should frequently take small sips of clear liquids such as ginger ale and flat soda. Tea is a soothing remedy for nausea, and certain tea is more effective than others. Ginger tea and peppermint tea are two of the most effective at battling nausea. Room temperature water also is a better choice than ice water for combatting nausea.

Using food to boost immunity

Over the past few years, immunotherapy has made some promising gains in fighting cancer.

Oats and barley boost immunity in people. These grains speed wound healing, which can help with the mouth and throat sores caused by chemo, and help antibiotics work better if the cancer patient develops an infection. Similarly, chicken soup blocks the migration of inflammatory white cells and its salty broth thins mucus. The spices, garlic, and onions in the soup also boost immunity. One powerful immune-boosting food is tea, which delivers the added benefit of helping nausea. Both black and green tea contain an amino acid, L-theanine, which is behind the immune boost.

Choose healthy foods

Eating healthy foods while undergoing chemotherapy is one of the best things seniors can do to boost immunity and improve their overall health. A balanced diet ensures that seniors get all of the nutrients they need. This also ensures that seniors get the calories and protein they need to retain their strength. Some of the healthiest foods include whole grain breads and cereals, 100% fruit or vegetable juices that have been pasteurized, whole fruits and vegetables, dried fruits, leafy green salads, and lean meats and fish. It’s also important for seniors undergoing chemotherapy to avoid processed foods and sugary foods that are high in saturated fat and calories but have very little nutritional value.

Of course, one of the best ways to manage the effects of chemotherapy is to get the senior’s mind off the treatment. Spending time together watching movies, taking walks, reading books, or staying busy by crocheting or knitting are a few ways to distract the senior from the side effects of chemotherapy. It also may be a good idea to line up care for your senior loved one at night so you can be sure he is eating properly and resting enough and you can be taking care of yourself, too. If your loved one has a dog, it would be helpful to secure a dog walker, cleaning service, and lawn service to alleviate the responsibilities around your loved one’s home so that everyone can concentrate on helping him through his battle with cancer.

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