Coping With Specific Health Challenges

Coping with cancer may come with challenges. During the phases of a cancer journey, the types of foods and beverages you can eat, as well as your nutritional needs, can change. That’s why it’s so important to find ways to get the nutrition you need while still eating foods that are appealing to you. Here are a few simple tips to consider when seeking nourishment during and after treatment. Always check with your healthcare team if any of your symptoms continue, get worse, or recur; or if you have any new symptoms.

Dry Mouth/Mouth Sores

Nutrition Tips:

  • Stay hydrated and drink plenty of fluids throughout the day. Drink fluids through a straw to divert away from painful areas.
  • Skip foods that are salty, spicy, acidic, rough or coarse in texture, and hurt to eat. Eat foods at room temperature.
  • Try soft foods such as soups, smoothies, yogurt, hot cereals, casseroles, eggs, tender meats, and well-cooked and mashed fruits and vegetables. When necessary, use pureed foods for the smoothest texture possible. Use sauces, liquid, broth, or gravy to soften food.
  • Drink high-calorie shakes or smoothies that are homemade (with protein powder, milk, soy milk, or rice milk, nut butter, yogurt, and/or flavorful fruits).
  • Use ice chips, sugarless gums, and sucking candies to moisten your mouth.
  • If you have dry mouth without mouth sores, try a tart liquid or food (lemon, lime, pickles) to stimulate saliva production.

Other Suggestions:

  • Discuss with your physician if you feel you need medication to help alleviate the pain of mouth sores.
  • Your doctor may advise you to see a dentist before you start cancer treatment.
  • Contact your doctor or nurse if you have new redness, sores, or white patches in your mouth, bleeding of your gums or mouth, difficulty or pain when you swallow, pain that does not get better with pain medication, or have any questions or concerns.
  • Use a small, soft-bristle toothbrush to brush your teeth and tongue gently after each meal and at bedtime.
  • Rinse your mouth every 4 to 6 hours or more often, as needed.
  • Avoid oral hygiene products containing alcohol as they will dry out and irritate your mouth.
  • Use a lip moisturizer after mouth care.
  • Avoid alcoholic beverages and tobacco, which will irritate and dry out your mouth.

Changes in Taste

Nutrition Tips:

  • If red meat tastes strange, replace it with chicken, turkey, fish, eggs, dairy, beans, or tofu.
  • Eat foods that smell and look good to you, but avoid favorite foods on the day of or days around your treatment.

Flavoring Tips:

Lack of taste:

  • If you do not have any mouth soreness and foods lack taste or taste like “cardboard,” season foods with tart flavors, such as lemon, citrus, vinegar, pickled, or spicy ingredients.

Metallic taste:

  • Avoid using metal utensils; use plastic utensils instead.
  • If you do not have any mouth soreness, add extra flavor to foods with spices such as onion, garlic, chili powder, basil, oregano, rosemary, tarragon, barbecue sauce, mustard, ketchup, or mint.
  • Avoid hot foods; serve food at room temperature.
  • Use sugar-free lemon drops, gum, or mints.

Salty, bitter, or sour taste:

  • Try adding sweetening agents such as sugar, maple syrup, agave syrup, or honey to help enhance the flavor.

Sweet taste:

  • Add 6 drops of lemon or lime juice—or enough drops until the sweet taste is muted.

Other Suggestions:

  • Rinse your mouth 4 times a day using a baking soda mixture (1 quart water, 1 tsp baking soda, and ¾ tsp salt) after meals. Room temperature or cold water is usually best. (Baking soda reduces the acidity of saliva, thins mucus, and discourages growth of yeast.) DO NOT SWALLOW.
  • Use a non-alcohol-based mouthwash to rinse your mouth and tongue twice a day. Floss gently.
  • To prevent bacteria growth dry your toothbrush before putting it away.

Difficulty Swallowing

Nutrition Tips:

  • Avoid foods that are spicy, acidic and rough, or coarse in texture.
  • Choose foods that are soft and easy to chew, such as soups, smoothies, yogurt, hot cereals, casseroles, eggs, tender meats, and well-cooked and mashed fruits and vegetables.
  • Avoid alcohol and tobacco, which may irritate your throat.
  • Use sauces, liquid, or gravy to moisten food.
  • Consume foods at room temperature.
  • Eat small meals frequently (5-6 times a day) instead of 3 large meals.
  • Eat meals that are high in protein/calories or add a nutritional beverage.

Nausea and Vomiting

Nutrition Tips:

  • Eat small meals frequently (5-6 times a day) instead of 3 large meals.
  • Eat a light meal on the day of your treatment.
  • Avoid greasy, spicy foods and foods with strong odors.
  • Eat foods such as crackers, toast, or broth, all of which may be easier on your stomach.
  • Try ginger teas, ginger candies, ginger snaps/cookies, or ginger root steeped in soups, juice, or tea.

Other Suggestions:

  • Track how often you feel nauseated. This may help your doctor or nurse better suggest how to manage your side effects.
  • Take anti-nausea medicines as directed by your doctor, nurse, or pharmacist.
  • Call your doctor or nurse if your anti-nausea medication is not working; you may need a different type.


Nutrition Tips:

  • Avoid foods high in fiber, greasy or fatty foods, raw vegetables, caffeine, alcohol, and sorbitol or other products containing sugar-alcohol.
  • Limit dairy products if you’re lactose intolerant.
  • Stay hydrated. Aim for 64 ounces (8 cups) of fluids per day.
  • Eat foods rich in potassium, such as bananas, apricots, sports drinks, and potatoes (without skin) to help replenish the potassium that can be depleted with diarrhea.
  • Eat foods high in pectin and foods that easily dissolve in your mouth, such as applesauce, rice, bananas, and oatmeal.

Other Suggestions:

  • Try to eat small meals (5-6 times a day) instead of 3 large meals.
  • Use wet wipes to gently clean yourself after each bowel movement to prevent irritation, soreness, and bleeding.


Nutrition Tips:

  • Stay hydrated. Drink a minimum of 8-10 eight oz. glasses of fluid per day.
  • Consuming warm liquids may help to stimulate a bowel movement.
  • Consume foods rich in dietary fiber, such as bran, whole grain breads, rice, cereal and pastas, as well as fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, and nuts.
  • Adding prune juice, hot lemon water, coffee, or tea into your daily routine could help stimulate the bowels.
  • If gas is a concern, limit gas-producing foods and drinks, such as carbonated beverages, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, peas, beans, onions, and raw peppers. Also, try drinking through a straw and cut down on chewing gum to limit swallowing air.

Other Suggestions:

  • Stay active. A short walk may help treat and prevent constipation.
  • Speak to your healthcare provider if the changes to your diet do not improve bowel movements, as you may need a medicine to help promote regularity.

Appetite Loss

Nutrition Tips:

  • Eat 5-6 small meals a day instead of 3 large meals. Aim to eat something at least every 2-3 hours.
  • Add extra butter, oil, mayonnaise, sauces, dressing, gravy, honey, jam, cheese, and nuts to your meals to increase calories.
  • Add extra protein by including poultry, meat, fish, eggs, yogurt, cheese, beans, and nuts to your meals and snacks. Dried milk powder mixed into gravies, soups, and sauces can also add more protein.
  • Keep nutritious snacks nearby or with you as you travel. High-protein snacks, such as peanut butter crackers, granola bars, nuts, yogurt, pudding, and cheese can be helpful.
  • Drink high-calorie liquids, such as juice, milkshakes, smoothies, and protein drinks.
  • Try nutritional beverage or liquid meal replacements if recommended by your healthcare team.

Other Suggestions:

  • Talk with a registered dietitian certified in oncology nutrition (CSO) about ways to add more calories and protein to your diet.
  • Exercise can help stimulate your appetite.
  • Make mealtime enjoyable: invite friends or family over or play relaxing music.
  • Speak to your healthcare provider if you find that dietary management does not help to improve your appetite or you are experiencing continued weight loss.


Nutrition Tips:

  • Plan meals ahead of time and make extra servings, if possible, to freeze, and have when you need it.
  • Choose foods high in protein and calories.
  • Instead of 3 large meals, eat 5-6 small, frequent meals a day to keep up your strength.
  • Stay hydrated: drink a minimum of 8-10 eight oz. glasses of fluid per day.
  • Try nutritional beverage or liquid meal replacements if recommended by your healthcare team.

Other Suggestions:

  • Listen to your body: schedule short naps or rest periods throughout the day and get quality sleep at night.
  • Keep active: a short walk or exercising for a short time daily can help you feel better.
  • Relax: try exercises such as stretching, yoga, massage, or aromatherapy.
  • Track your fatigue levels every day. This can help your healthcare provider identify things that may be contributing to your fatigue, such as sleep/wake disturbances and other side effects.
  • Plan your day so you accomplish the most important activities first.
  • Accept help from family members and friends to shop and prepare meals for you, run errands, or do housework.

chat bubble Contact Your Healthcare Team If You Are Experiencing the Following:

  • Mouth sores
  • Ulcerations
  • Bleeding
  • White patches
  • Pain
  • Difficulty swallowing, eating, drinking, or talking
  • Difficulty with coughing while eating or drinking
  • A choking sensation
  • Weight loss
  • Nausea and vomiting even after taking your anti-nausea medicines
  • Four+ watery bowel movements in a day
  • Diarrhea for more than 24hrs
  • Stomach cramping
  • Bleeding from your rectum
  • Difficulties with bowel movement lasting more than 2-3 days
  • Difficulties doing your normal everyday activities
  • Tiredness after resting or sleeping
  • Sadness or depression

Back to Top

Create A Game Plan

Get helpful tips tailored for your specific cancer needs.

Let's Begin bullseye

What kind of support are you looking for?

Find health, emotional well-being, and communication resources specific to one of following cancers:

Merck’s Response to Coronavirus (COVID-19)

During this unprecedented time, Merck is continuing to focus on the well-being of our patients and communities. Visit our COVID-19 information page for more details.

You are about toleave this site

The link you have selected will take you to a site outside of Merck & Co., Inc.

Merck does not review or control the content of any non-Merck site. Merck does not endorse and is not responsible for the accuracy, content, practices, or standards of any non-Merck site.