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Esophageal Cancer: Nutrition During and After Treatment

If you have esophageal cancer, good nutrition will be a crucial part of your treatment plan. The esophagus is the swallowing tube that connects the back of your throat to your stomach.

There are many treatments for this type of cancer. They include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or other types of treatment. All of these treatments can affect your ability to get the nutrition you need.

fruit smoothie

How cancer of the esophagus affects nutrition

This type of cancer can narrow your esophagus. This can make it tricky or painful to swallow. Treatment can also make it harder for you to get proper nutrition. Working with a nutrition specialist can help. This member of your care team can help you with the following:

  • Loss of appetite. This is common during treatment with cancer medicines.

  • Dryness and narrowing of your throat and esophagus. This can happen from radiation.

  • Not being able to swallow while recovering from surgery.

Your options for nutrition during treatment

Your treatment will depend on the stage of your cancer and your health. Some of the nutrition challenges you may face include the following:

  • You may be able to eat the regular way by eating food by mouth. In some cases, even if swallowing is hard, you may be able to use techniques to make it easier. For instance, a diet of soft, high-protein foods may help.

  • You may need tube feeding. You may need this if you can't eat enough food by mouth or are recovering from surgery. This is when a tube is inserted through your nose and into your stomach for short periods of time.

  • If you need tube feeding for a long time, a tube can be put right into your small intestine. This is called a J-tube. Or a tube may be put into your stomach. This is called a G-tube. These tubes can be taken out if you’re able to start swallowing by mouth again.

  • Parenteral nutrition is nutrition you get through an intravenous (IV) drip. It doesn't depend on swallowing or digestion. You may need this type of nutrition after surgery or when you don't get enough food by mouth. Fluids that contain proteins, fats, and vitamins are given through a catheter. The catheter is placed into a vein in your upper chest or in an arm. Your healthcare team will choose the type of nutrition you get.

Tips to make eating easier

Many people with esophageal cancer have trouble keeping a normal weight. The following tips can help.

If you’re overweight, talk to your healthcare provider or nutritionist before adding some of these high calorie foods into your diet.

  • Eat foods high in calories and protein. These include whole, full fat dairy products, nut products, and meats. Examples include milkshakes, smoothies with protein powder, peanut butter, beans, eggs, cheese, and yogurt.

  • If swallowing is still hard, soften your foods with gravies or sauces. Chop up meat into small pieces. Examples include scrambled eggs, pasta, custard, pudding, and soups and stews made with ground meat.

  • If you’ve had surgery, your stomach may be smaller. You may fill up quickly. It may help to eat smaller meals more often. You should also avoid drinking fluids before meals. And keep lots of snacks on hand for between meals. Examples of tasty, calorie-dense snacks include cheese and crackers, toast with peanut butter, crackers and hummus, yogurt and fruit, and cereal with whole milk and bananas.

  • You may need to sip fluids while you’re eating. This can aid in swallowing comfort. This can also help food pass through your esophagus. 

  • Add butter, margarine, or oil to your foods whenever you can.

Nutrition is important before, during, and after treatment for esophageal cancer. Learn as much as you can about nutrition. Work with your healthcare team.

Medical Reviewers:

  • Alteri, Rick, MD
  • Gersten, Todd, MD