Leukemia is a cancer of the body’s blood-forming tissues, including the blood cells, bone marrow, and lymphatic system. Four main subtypes of leukemia commonly affect children. In the United States, there are more than 3,800 annual cases of leukemia in children, which makes up about 30 percent of childhood cancers.
When a child is diagnosed with leukemia or is undergoing leukemia treatment, a wholesome diet filled with foods that nourish them is key to achieving and sustaining their health. However, leukemia poses its own unique challenges when it comes to healthy eating. For instance, appetite loss is a side effect of leukemia. Common leukemia treatment-related side effects may also make eating a challenge. Such side effects include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Changes to or loss of taste and smell
- Difficulty chewing or swallowing
- Decreased nutrient absorption nutrients from food
- Constipation and diarrhea
- Mouth sores or oral ulcers
Despite the challenges, helping your child eat healthily throughout their cancer journey is well worth it. Medication and therapies and what and how a child eats may help manage side effects and have other benefits, specifically:
- Tolerance of and recovery from treatment
- Promotion of healing and regeneration of new blood cells
- Prevention of opportunistic infections
- Prevention of weight loss
- Provision of energy
- Retention of muscle condition
- Maintenance of general health
- Avoidance of developmental delays
Here are some tips to help your child stay strong and nourished while fighting leukemia or going through treatment.
Eat Up! Quantity Matters
Leukemia treatment is taxing on your child’s body. It is during this phase of a child’s cancer journey when proper nutrition, comprising nutrient- and protein-rich foods, is of the utmost importance.
Drug therapies and radiation therapy create a need for more calories and protein each day. But getting enough calories from the right foods is an important part of leukemia treatment and recovery. Research has shown that those with leukemia who maintain a healthy body weight tend to manage side effects from their treatment better than those who do not. Your child’s disease and treatment may increase their body’s need for calories and higher intake of protein.
Eat Right! Quality Matters
In addition to ample calories, the right types of nutritious foods help provide the necessary fuel for the body to repair itself, replace damaged cells, and recover from cancer and its treatments.
- Fruits and veggies: Aim for five to 10 half-cup servings of fruit and vegetables every day. The recommended serving size for leafy greens, melons, and berries is one cup. Veggies, especially cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale, watercress and radishes) are powerful. They are recommended for a leukemia diet on a daily basis.
- Probiotics (found in yogurt and kefir) add to and balance out the stomach’s healthy bacteria. Probiotics may also help your body to better handle food when you’re fighting the nausea and vomiting that is often a common side effect of cancer treatment.
- Protein such as nuts or nut butter, seeds, eggs, and lean meats like poultry are the building blocks of the body’s cells and are an important part of a child’s diet when they have cancer.
- Whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa, oats, bulgar, and buckwheat provide a better, healthier caloric punch than processed carbohydrates and foods made with white flour.
Sip Steadily: Stay Hydrated
Some leukemia therapies, such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and some drugs can cause dehydration. Diarrhea and vomiting can further contribute to the risk of dehydration. Consuming ample fluids — clear, non-caffeinated liquids like water and broths — and keeping your child’s electrolyte levels up may also help combat other side effects such as fatigue and constipation.
During treatment, it may be difficult for your child to drink. If it’s all they can manage, even just sipping small amounts of fluids throughout the day can make a difference. Make it part of the routine — don’t wait until signs of dehydration appear or until your child feels thirsty to drink.
Play It Safe: Avoid Food-Borne Illness
Cancer treatment weakens the immune system and makes your child more susceptible to food-borne illness. Remembering these key food safety basics is important when preparing meals for a child who is immunosuppressed from leukemia treatment:
- Clean your hands, surfaces, and kitchen tools well and often.
- Prepare different types of foods on different surfaces — for example, don’t mix poultry and veggies during prep.
- Cook all food to a proper temperature as measured by a meat thermometer.
- Chill foods promptly and avoid leaving them at room temperature.
In general, avoid the following types of foods if your child has leukemia: cold hot dogs and deli or lunch meats, dry-cured uncooked salami, raw milk products, raw or undercooked beef and shellfish, unpasteurized fruit juice, and undercooked eggs.
Bottom Line: Food Is Fuel For Your Fight Against Leukemia
Proper nutrition is an important part of your child’s treatment for, recovery from, and long term remission from leukemia. Your treatment team will likely discuss your child’s diet with you, but if they don’t, speak up and ask questions about it.