Cancer Patients and the Negative Effects of Chemotherapy

by Dr. Lorin Bradbury

Question: I have a friend who is undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. After returning home from her most recent, she doesn’t want to eat, and to me she seems very depressed. Do you think she would benefit from counseling? I would really like to get her to eat again. I guess I am grasping for an answer. 

It’s a common experience for those taking chemotherapy to experience a decrease in appetite because the medication that destroys cancer cells also destroys healthy cells. Chemotherapy can cause sores in the mouth of cancer patients and many experience nausea. Others lose their sense of smell, and as a result it alters how foods taste.

When you consider that just hearing the diagnosis of cancer, for many, is like receiving a death sentence, it would not be unusual for someone to feel depressed. When my father was diagnosed with cancer and he made a decision to undergo radiation to be followed by chemotherapy, he described it as being on death row and treatment was his hope for a pardon. If your friend doesn’t begin to feel better within a reasonable amount of time, you may want connect her with someone who could provide counseling or at least evaluate her condition.

Another thing to consider is exploring with your friend what she might feel like eating. There are a couple of cookbooks published by the American Cancer Society for the very purpose of helping cancer patients and caregivers cook foods that will help patients overcome the debilitating effects of treatment. The Complete Guide to Nutrition for Cancer Survivors is currently on sale at Amazon for $15.32. The second book, What to Eat During Cancer Treatment is on sale at Amazon for $12.54. This second book provides recipes to help patients cope with six symptoms often experienced during treatment.

There are some other things you might do to help your friend:

• Ask if you can help with groceries—or offer to do the dishes.

• Ask if she has any special request. Instead of just showing up with chocolate cake, ask, “What can I make you? What sounds good?”

• Offer to put together a “survival kit” in a cooler, filled with snacks and drinks, for times when she doesn’t want to get out of bed to go to the kitchen to eat.

• Prepare an “on-the-go” snack mix—with nuts, pretzels, dry cereal or crackers—for the cancer patient to eat when away from home.

• Instead of making one big casserole, prepare individual servings to freeze and reheat.

• Wash your hands carefully, make sure all meats and eggs are fully cooked, and take care to avoid any kind of contamination, which can be dangerous for people with weakened immune systems.

It might be good for you to talk candidly with your friend about her needs. If what appears to be depressive symptoms don’t subside in a reasonable amount of time, encourage her to see her physician. You might ask if she will allow you to go along with her to see her physician, and you might ask the physician’s opinion about your friend’s need to see a mental health professional.

Lorin L. Bradbury, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Bethel. For appointments, he can be reached at 543-3266. If you have questions that you would like Dr. Bradbury to answer in the Delta Discovery, please send them to The Delta Discovery, P.O. Box 1028, Bethel, AK 99559, or e-mail them to [email protected]