Delicious, healthy: Eat well during treatments

September 19, 2011
A delicious and healthy parfait of yogurt, banana, blueberries and homemade granola. BY JACK CLEMONS

Earlier this week the Cancer Support Community in Rehoboth invited me to speak to members about eating well during cancer treatment. Although everyone’s experience of cancer is unique, maintaining good nutrition is a common challenge. Many of us have friends or family members who have dealt with the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation. Often, these develop because the therapies are working: cancer cells are killed, but healthy cells are also destroyed. Since the areas most affected are the mouth, throat and digestive system, eating well can be difficult.

One of the members of the group suggested what to eat on a treatment day: make sure you don’t choose your favorite foods. Without knowing how you might react, you wouldn’t want to risk turning against your favorite dish. It’s also a good idea to avoid spicy or greasy foods that may repeat on you later. Choose a meal of complex carbohydrates and high protein that will stay with you.

During treatment, it’s essential to make sure you’re getting enough good calories in your diet, key to rebuilding strength and supporting the immune system. When the prospect of eating is daunting, try more frequent, smaller meals. Sneak in some high-quality calories with protein powder in your oatmeal or dry milk powder in your soup. Fortified nutritional supplement drinks are a helpful snack; make them tastier or turn them into healthy shakes by blending in chunks of frozen banana.

Many people described how they no longer enjoyed certain foods due to taste changes. One strategy to avoid the unpleasant metallic taste that often occurs is to use plastic utensils (look for dishwasher-safe options in the camping-gear section of sporting goods stores). A way to manage food odors that can become unpleasant is to simmer dinner in a crock pot in the garage or cook your meal in a friend’s kitchen.

It’s not uncommon for sores to form in the tender mucous membranes of the mouth; if this happens, you’ll need menu adjustments. Instead of serving food hot, let it cool to room temperature. Select recipes for bland dishes without too much spice or acidity. This is a time when soft foods are best, like the noodle pudding we served during the class. I had also brought along a bag of frozen peach pieces to offer as soothing treats to melt in your mouth (unfortunately, I didn’t remember them until I was driving home).

During class, I cooked a creamy bisque incorporating both sweet and white potatoes. The original recipe called for lime juice and bay leaf, which I omitted, hoping to avoid a flavor mix that might be too sharp. You can add more punch with chopped garlic instead of shallot and a sprinkle of fresh thyme or snipped chives as garnish. My version must have been a success – the woman in the group who usually avoids sweet potatoes thoroughly enjoyed the soup.

Digestive system problems you might encounter during treatment – diarrhea and constipation – are opposite issues with different solutions. Too much activity can be calmed with the b-r-a-t-t diet: bananas, rice, applesauce, toast and tea. Bananas contribute potassium, rice is bland and soft, applesauce contains pectin, toast offers low-fiber carbohydrates and tea will help with hydration. If you’re also nauseous, consider ginger tea. The other problem demands high-fiber foods like homemade granola – full of toasted oats, wheat bran, nuts and dried fruit – seen in the photo among layers of yogurt, bananas and blueberries.

The most enjoyable part of the discussion was when we spoke about celebration meals – what to eat the evening of your last treatment or when a follow-up appointment goes well. These are the times to serve those favorite foods; eat what you love or what you’ve missed eating. Although the recipes here are delicious options for any meal, they’re examples of foods to eat during cancer treatment – here’s hoping you never have to serve them for that reason.

Noodle Pudding
12 oz wide egg noodles
5 T butter
4 egg whites
1 1/2 C cottage cheese
1 1/2 C plain yogurt
6 oz cream cheese
2/3 C sugar
1/2 t vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 F. Boil the noodles in salted water until cooked but firm, about 7 minutes. While the noodles are cooking, place the butter in a 9-by-13-inch baking pan and put in the oven to melt. When the noodles are done, remove the pan from the oven and toss the noodles in the pan to coat with melted butter. In a small mixing bowl, beat the egg whites until firm and glossy; set aside. Combine the remaining ingredients in a large mixing bowl and beat until smooth and creamy. Fold in the egg whites. Pour the liquid mixture over the buttered noodles in the pan, stirring to distribute evenly. Bake until starting to brown, about 50 minutes.

Potato Bisque
3 sweet potatoes
2 baking potatoes
1 diced onion
1 minced shallot
2 C chicken broth
1 C buttermilk
1 C milk
salt & pepper, to taste
yogurt or sour cream (optional)

Peel and chop the potatoes. Combine potatoes, onion, shallot and broth in a large saucepan. Cover and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook until potatoes are fork-tender, about 20 minutes. Using an immersion blender or food processor, puree the mixture until smooth. Add the buttermilk and milk; blend until combined. Adjust seasonings and garnish, if desired.

5 C oatmeal (not quick oats)
1/2 C wheat germ
1/2 C chopped walnuts
1/2 C slivered almonds
1/2 C sunflower seeds
2 T protein powder
1 t cinnamon
1/4 C molasses
1/3 C honey
1/4 C maple syrup
2/3 C raisins
2/3 C craisins

Preheat oven to 300 F. Line a baking pan with parchment paper; set aside. In a large bowl, combine oatmeal, wheat germ, nuts, protein powder and cinnamon. Stir to combine. Pour in molasses, honey and maple syrup; mix thoroughly to distribute completely. Bake for 30 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes. Remove pan from oven and stir in fruit. Allow to cool; store in an airtight container.