How to Eat Well at Work During and After Cancer

Experts offered tips on quick, healthy office meals and snacks while fighting cancer’s side effects.
BY Katie Kosko
PUBLISHED June 25, 2019
Be prepared, flexible and have go-to snacks on-hand when returning to work during or after cancer treatment, said a panel of experts in nutrition and oncology during Cancer and Careers' ninth annual National Conference on Work and Cancer.

They discussed the changing relationship with food that a patient may experience and how it can be problematic when going back to the office. For instance, patients may find themselves avoiding certain foods because of side effects or they begin to dislike their favorite food because of the feeling it gave them while they were actively receiving treatment.

Maintaining a healthy diet at work may also be challenging because of lack of time and if someone doesn’t have a typical office job, such as a truck driver or restaurant server, where there aren’t breaks or microwaves and refrigerators available.

However, the panelists explained, diet doesn’t have to be compromised. For patients who are working on the road, try to select the healthiest options. For example, instead of a burger and french fries at McDonald’s, grab a salad or fruit. At Dunkin Donuts, try the reduced fat blueberry muffin rather than a donut.

Hearty smoothies are great options for people who must eat something quickly, said Katy Fung, an oncology nutritionist at New York-Presbyterian/Queens. “Build that smoothie by adding milk, Greek yogurt, a spoonful of olive oil and fruits. That way when you have a minute or two, you are able to take a few sips,” said Fung.

Easy snacks to keep in a bag or desk drawer include fruits, such as an apple or banana; nuts; nut butters, like peanut butter and almond butter; and protein bars, such as an RXbar.

Patients can also cut down on time by looking for prepared foods at the grocery store, such as a rotisserie chicken, grilled chicken and pre-cut or frozen vegetables, that can be quickly turned into full meals.

“Don’t try to make something different every day. That’s way too much. Try to re-use what you’re preparing,” said Suzanne Gerdes Fultz, a clinical outpatient dietician-nutritionist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. “Take one main protein, like chicken, put it into several different meals with (a variety of) gains or vegetables so it feels like you’re eating something new.”

Use an instant pot or a crockpot to avoid standing for long periods of time while preparing meals for the work week. Frozen meals can be options too. Brands like Evol and Luvo are lower in sodium and fat, explained Gerdes Fultz. Eggs, frozen fish and beans are also quick proteins that become a main part of a meal.

“If you have friends and family who are asking what they can do to help out while you’re in treatment and they volunteer to prepare meals, I would take them up on that,” said Holly Mills, an oncology dietician at John Theurer Cancer Center in Hackensack, New Jersey. These meals can be stored in the freezer, where they will last longer, and taken out as needed. If meals are kept in the refrigerator, toss them after three to four days.

Stressful situations at work may lead to making unhealthy food choices. “We may eat not because we are hungry but because of stress,” said Mills. “I encourage folks to take a moment rather than grab chips from the vending machine.” Take a walk, take a few deep breaths or listen to music that can help destress you, she added.

Side effects can be one of those stressors for someone when they have to go to work and don’t feel well. Nausea is one of the frequently experienced side effects but can be controlled by eating mini meals every two to three hours and packing dry, starchy foods including pretzels and crackers. If someone is feeling fatigued they should make a meal or snack that has a protein, a healthy fat and a carbohydrate. For example, a nut butter sandwich or an apple with peanut butter. It’s also important to drink plenty of water. “If you’re not a big drinker, keep the bottle of water in front of you as a reminder to keep drinking,” said Mills. “You can also get up and walk around, keep moving as part of your day because it helps with that fatigue management.”

Taste issues also arise following certain cancer treatments. If food tastes like metal, avoid using metal utensils, explained Fung. If foods taste bitter, add honey or maple syrup. And if the food has no taste, add something acidic like lemon juice.

The experts agreed that treatment and its side effects will affect many aspects of a person’s diet, including the foods they can and want to eat. “Being flexible with what you eat and the things you choose at the grocery store or when you’re eating out with family and friends is going to change, so be open and be OK with that flexibility in your diet,” said Gerdes Fultz.
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