Nutrition‌ ‌and‌ ‌cancer‌: Diet‌ ‌tips‌ ‌for‌ ‌people‌ ‌with‌ ‌cancer‌

Your relationship with food and nutrition completely changes when you are diagnosed with cancer. What was probably the easiest thing to do before cancer, becomes all that more difficult after cancer  –because now you must eat to keep up your strength and deal with the side effects of treatment.

Doctors advice that proper nutrition helps in recovery, minimises unpleasant symptoms and improves the quality of life.

For instance, in some cases, your diet may need a dash of extra milk, cheese and eggs while at other times, you may have to have low-fibre foods. Whatever the case may be a dietician may be able to help you make any changes you need.

Dr Ashay Karpe, Medical oncologist and haematologist, Sunrise Oncology Centre, says, “I always say that cancer treatment does not only mean chemotherapy, surgery and radiation, but it also requires comprehensive care. And nutrition is one of the most important aspects of successful cancer treatment. A patient should always have a balanced diet, avoid oily, spicy foods and preserved or stale food. It is also advisable to avoid refined sugars that are very high in soft drinks and other sweetened, preserved foods.”

Side Effects from cancer treatment can lead to eating problems:

Cancer treatment is aimed at killing cancer cells, but the therapy can also damage healthy cells which can lead to side-effects (hyperlink).  These side effects may include

  • Loss of appetite
  • Changes in your sense of taste or smell
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Dry mouth
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Sore mouth
  • Sore throat and trouble swallowing
  • Weight gain
  • Weight loss

You need to remember that you don’t need to make very drastic changes,  just a few simple tricks can help make healthy foods tasty.

Before Treatment

It is best to start prepping for your cancer treatment before it starts. Since you don’t know how and how quickly you might feel the side effects, it is best to start improving your eating habits, so your body stays healthy and helps you feel better during the treatment.

You could also plan your meals for those days that you don’t feel like eating anything. You could stock up on healthy, easy to prepare foods or pre-make meals that you can store in your freezer.

During Treatment

During treatment, you will go through days where you don’t want to eat a thing and some days when you feel hungry. The days you feel good try having high protein foods and have a lot of healthy calories. A good diet can help your body bounce back from treatment and make you feel healthier.

You should include foods such as lean meat, chicken, fish, eggs, beans, nuts, seeds, cheese, milk and yoghurt.

Another essential addition to your diet should fruits and vegetables (nutritionists recommend 2.5 cups a day). Especially dark green and deep yellow veggies and citrus fruits.

Drink plenty of water and freshly squeezed juices to keep yourself hydrated and give your body some extra vitamins.

Eat 6 small meals throughout the day instead of 3 large meals. Make sure you reach your calorie goal with these smaller meals.

Manage side effects with food

Specific side effects of cancer treatment can make it hard to eat, but the right food can also make you feel better in some cases.

Nausea and/or vomiting: One of the most common side effects of cancer treatment, in such cases, it is best to avoid high-fat, greasy, spicy foods, and those with strong smells. Instead, you could try to eat dry foods such as crackers or toast every few hours. Even broths, sports drinks and water help.

Mouth or throat related problems: If you have mouth sores, pain or are having trouble swallowing then soft foods are the way to go. Avoid rough, spicy and or acidic food. You should also make sure the food you eat is lukewarm and neither too hot nor cold as it can cause more discomfort. If your symptoms are very severe, you could choose to use a straw to drink your soup or juice.

Diarrhoea and constipation: In case you’re suffering from diarrhoea, staying hydrated is significant. Drinking lots of liquids and avoiding foods that are high in fibre helps. In case of constipation, gradually adding high-fibre foods to your diet along with drinking lots of water and other fluids is essential.

Change in taste: Cancer treatment can change your taste preferences. You may start to enjoy flavours you didn’t like in the past. It could also dull your sense of taste, for which you could try more tart flavours like that of ginger or pomegranates and certain spices.

The right diet can be beneficial:

Malnutrition, muscle loss and atrophy are relatively common in people with cancer and can have a significant impact on your health and survival [1]

While there’s no proven cure for cancer and food has not been unequivocally linked to either cure or exacerbate cancer, people with the ailment are urged to have a healthy and balanced diet.

Studies have found that a diet sufficient in high-quality protein and calories may help reduce muscle atrophy [2]

On the flip side, having too many supplements with vitamins could interfere with chemotherapy, so its best to have supplements under the guidance of a trained nutritionist.

So, what should you eat?

Studies have found that foods such as vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and lean protein may prevent cancer. [3]

In contrast, processed meats, refined carbs, salt and alcohol may increase your risk. [3]

But whatever research may indicate, if you have cancer, it is generally ideal to have a healthy, balanced diet to preserve your quality of life and have favourable treatment outcomes.

Food safety guidelines:

  • As someone with cancer and actively undergoing treatment, it is advised you take care of your source of food and how it is handled. Here are a few precautions you should take:
  • Wash fruits, meat and vegetables well before you consume them.
  • If you’re consuming canned food, make sure to wash the can well before you open it.
  • Be very careful to avoid cross contamination between raw meats and other foods.
  • Avoid eating pre-cut fruits and vegetables
  • Wash your hands well with soap and water before eating your meals.
  • If you choose to dine out, visit a place that is clean and hygienic. 

You may also like to read:

Can diabetes make you more prone to cancer?
Prostate cancer: 11 common questions answered
Knowing these 11 lung cancer symptoms can save your life
5 things you should know about obesity and breast cancer
Yes, cancer can be prevented; here are 6 things that can help


1) Arends J, Bachmann P, Baracos V, Barthelemy N, Bertz H, Bozzetti F, Fearon K, Hütterer E, Isenring E, Kaasa S, Krznaric Z, Laird B, Larsson M, Laviano A, Mühlebach S, Muscaritoli M, Oldervoll L, Ravasco P, Solheim T, Strasser F, de van der Schueren M, Preiser JC. ESPEN guidelines on nutrition in cancer patients. Clin Nutr. 2017 Feb;36(1):11-48. doi: 10.1016/j.clnu.2016.07.015. Epub 2016 Aug 6. PMID: 27637832.

2) Fearon K, Arends J, Baracos V. Understanding the mechanisms and treatment options in cancer cachexia. Nat Rev Clin Oncol. 2013 Feb;10(2):90-9. doi: 10.1038/nrclinonc.2012.209. Epub 2012 Dec 4. PMID: 23207794.

3) Skerrett PJ, Willett WC. Essentials of healthy eating: a guide. J Midwifery Womens Health. 2010;55(6):492-501. doi:10.1016/j.jmwh.2010.06.019






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