The Complete Guide to Head and Neck Cancer

HEAD and NECK CANCERS are a collection of malignancies in the upper digestive tract, salivary glands and thyroid. Head and Neck Cancers can occur in the oral cavity, oropharynx, hypopharynx and larynx, this is in the throat, lips, mouth, and nose. 5% of people are affected with this disease and 3% of them die in some countries. In India this cancer ranks third among the other cancers and have unique characteristics, mainly because of socioeconomic conditions, large patient population, less number of trained health workers and so on.


Chemotheraphy and Appetite

Cancer is treated in many ways, and Chemotherapy is one of them.

To treat a cancer patient through Chemo, some special drugs are used to kill the cancer cells that have grown in the body. Certain cancers can be treated only with Chemotherapy, and certain cancers are treated with Chemo combined with Radiation Therapy and Surgery.

Chemotherapy and Appetite:

Patients who are undergoing Chemotherapy, the intake of food is also important as they may experience nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and constipation. 

Patient need not be on a special diet while undergoing chemo. But they need to have a nutritious and a well-balanced diet so that the patient can withstand the side effects of the treatment, stop weight loss, reduce the risk of infections and it also helps the patient recover fast. These days there are a variety of dietary supplements and anti-cancer diets, but nothing like a well-balanced diet-home made food.

Generally, it is very common during chemotherapy to lose appetite. The digestive system, from mouth, throat, stomach and intestines can get affected, causing the loss of appetite. Sometimes due to depression, also one may lose appetite. But still, this will not stay forever. After treatment, the patient will get back his appetite.

Weight loss with Chemotherapy:

  • As a result of chemotherapy treatment, there may be a weight loss.
  • This decreases strength, causes weakness & tiredness, and can also reduce the interest in performing daily activities.

The Side Effects of Weight Loss are

a) loss of appetite.

b) smell and taste changes.

c) Dry or sore mouth

d) nausea, vomiting

e) constipation or diarrhoea

An oncologist can help the patient with these side effects and advice the patient how to manage the diet.

Eating Well With Chemotherapy:

Eating well means taking a diet –variety and well-balanced one which provides all the calories and nutrients needed like-protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals.

Three meals every day, that should include foods that the patient enjoys.

Energy-rich foods are carbohydrates like-bread, rice, pasta, yam, potatoes, chapattis and cereals for each meal.

Protein-rich foods are—meat, poultry, fish, eggs, cheese, beans, yoghurt, tofu or lentils at least twice a day.

Food with minerals and vitamins include fruits and vegetables that should be included in every meal like carrots, cucumber, apples, plums, pears, oranges and peaches.

Fluids like-apart from water, tea, coffee, fruit juice, soups, milky drinks and smoothies at least six to eight cups, can squeeze a lime, add a fruit juice to water for better taste.

Avoid consuming alcohol totally during chemo treatment as chemotherapy is taxing on the liver.

Kidneys need plenty of fluid to excrete chemotherapy medicines.


Some patients may gain excess weight during chemotherapy. There are a few reasons for this-

  1. a) physical activity decreased,
  2. b) overeating,
  3. c) stress, boredom,

Immediately this may not be a concern, but in the long run gaining weight will be a problem.

Here again the treating doctor’s advice helps.

Food Safety And Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy can cause the skin to break down and reduce the white blood cells in the body. So food safety becomes a must while chemo treatment is going on to reduce the risk of food safety. 

The first and foremost of food safety is to cook the food properly to reduce the germs.

Store food at the right temperature to reduce the growth of germs.

Must avoid contamination of food after cooking.

The other ways of ensuring food safety are:

  1. Always check the expiry date on food labels.
  2. Avoid buying damaged vegetables and fruits.
  3. Avoid buying damaged or broken packaging.
  4. Chilled and frozen food should be brought home as early as it is bought.
  5. Avoid unpasteurized milk and milk products.
  6. Avoid smoked fish, raw sprouts, raw beef, raw eggs.

Duration To Get Back Appetite After Chemotherapy

  • Generally it takes two to three weeks once chemotherapy stops to get back the appetite.
  • If it does not, consult the treating doctor.
  • It also depends on the kind of chemotherapy medicine that was given.
  • you can also eat food that smells and tastes good.
  • go for a 30 minute walk before eating, it will help;
  • eat small meals and snacks each day after the chemo treatment.
  • set the table, play your favorite music, watch TV or eat with someone, so that you will eat well, after the treatment stops.

Eating Out During Chemo:

Eat freshly prepared food, ask for it.

  • served food should be very hot, and cooked thoroughly.
  • always avoid buying food from bars, outside vendors, ice cream vans and buffets- the food might be stale.

Food Preparation During And After Chemotherapy

  • Hands should be washed thoroughly.
  • If you touch any raw food such as eggs, fish, meat, poultry, vegetables and fruits, wash hands thoroughly.
  • Surface where the food is to be prepared, should also be clean.
  • Cooked food should not come into contact with raw foods, even the utensils and clothes should not be kept near cooked food.
  • Keep a separate chopping board for cutting raw food and ready to eat food.
  • Wash fruits, vegetables and salads thoroughly before eating.

Awareness About Chemotherapy And Appetite:

Many patients are not aware that appetite plays a major role before, during and after chemotherapy. They need to schedule the type of food, precautions to be taken and to eat a well balanced diet. To also take small meals, keep snacks handy and juices to take at regular intervals will help to recover fast.

It is always important to discuss with the doctor about the minerals, dietary supplements and herbs if you take before the chemotherapy begins and the advice is very helpful. This awareness is also a must. Awareness about your diet, exercise, talking to others and joining a support group also helps to talk about and listen to the diet plans of others, to cope with the treatment.