Diet and nutrition

Head and neck cancer can make it hard to eat and drink. For example:

  • cancers in the throat can sometimes cause pain and difficulty swallowing, making it hard to eat so you lose weight

  • radiation therapy may make your mouth dry (reduced saliva)

  • chemotherapy and radiation therapy may change the way food tastes and reduce your enjoyment of food

  • chemotherapy may make you vomit or feel sick in the stomach (nauseous), and reduce how much you want to eat

  • surgery may cause changes to your mouth, throat or teeth, making it hard to chew or swallow.

It's important to try to keep your food intake up and to avoid losing weight. If you can’t eat or drink enough, you won’t get enough energy and may start to lose weight and strength.

Having a good diet can help you:

  • get through treatment

  • reduce the chance you will get an infection

  • recover more quickly

  • keep your strength and energy levels up.

What can I do to keep my food intake up?

  • Eat a diet high in protein and calories (energy).

  • Eat small meals or snacks more often if you have trouble eating a full meal.

  • Drink calorie rich fluids, such as milk, milkshakes, smoothies or juice. Your dietitian may recommend supplement drinks that are high in protein and energy.

  • If you have a sore throat, avoid foods that scratch or burn it, such as citrus, vinegar, chips or toast.

Where can I find support?

A dietitian is an expert in food and nutrition who helps people with their diet. Your dietitian will help you work out a plan to get all the energy you need. The dietitian may give you some tips to make eating easier, stay well-hydrated and enjoy your food to help you keep weight on.

You may have trouble eating and drinking because of your treatment, but you may find that this gets better over time. Some people need a feeding tube to make sure they are eating enough and getting enough energy. If this is the case for you, your doctor, dietitian and nurse will talk with you about what this involves. Feeding tubes are usually only needed for a short time, until you recover enough and can eat more. Some people may need feeding tubes for a longer amount of time.

If you are having difficulty swallowing, you can see a speech pathologist. A speech pathologist is an expert in speech and swallowing. Your speech pathologist will teach you ways to make swallowing easier. There is more information in the Speech, voice and swallowing section.

Diet and nutrition after cancer treatment (Queensland Health, Nutrition Education Materials online-NEMO)
Preparing to eat well during radiotherapy to the head and neck area (Queensland Health, Nutrition Education Materials online-NEMO)
Eating after radiotherapy to the head and neck are (Queensland Health, Nutrition Education Materials online-NEMO)
Understanding head and neck cancers. Cancer Council Australia.
Understanding Taste and Smell Changes. Cancer Council Australia, 2015