- Nutrition for the Person With Cancer During Treatment: A Guide for Patients and Families
- Benefits of good nutrition
- Cancer and cancer treatment affect nutrition
- Before treatment begins
- Once treatment starts
- Managing eating problems caused by surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy
- For people with weakened immune systems
- How to cope with common eating problems
- Appetite changes
- Mouth dryness or thick saliva
- Mouth or throat pain or sores
- Swallowing problems
- Taste and smell changes
- Weight gain
- Nutrition after treatment ends
- To learn more
- Recipes to try
Once treatment starts
Your body needs a healthy diet to function at its best. This is even more important if you have cancer. With a healthy diet, you’ll go into treatment with reserves to help keep up your strength, prevent body tissue from breaking down, rebuild tissue, and maintain your defenses against infection. People who eat well are better able to cope with side effects of treatment. And you may even be able to handle higher doses of certain drugs. In fact, some cancer treatments work better in people who are well-nourished and are getting enough calories and protein.
- Don’t be afraid to try new foods. Some things you may never have liked before may taste good during treatment.
- Choose different plant-based foods. Try eating dried beans and peas instead of meat at a few meals each week.
- Try to eat at least 2½ cups of fruits and vegetables a day, including citrus fruits and dark-green and deep-yellow vegetables. Colorful vegetables and fruits and plant-based foods contain natural health-promoting substances called phytochemicals.
- Limit high-fat foods, especially those from animal sources. Choose lower-fat milk and dairy products. Reduce the amount of fat in your meals by choosing a lower-fat cooking method like baking or broiling.
- Try to stay at a healthy weight, and stay physically active. Small weight fluctuations during treatment are normal.
- Limit the amount of salt-cured, smoked, and pickled foods you eat.
If you cannot do any of the above during this time, do not worry about it. Help is available if or when you need it. Sometimes diet changes are needed to get the extra fluids, protein, and calories you need. Tell your doctor, nurse, or dietitian about any problems you have.
Snack as needed
During cancer treatment your body often needs extra calories and protein to help you maintain your weight and heal as quickly as possible. If you are losing weight, snacks can help you meet those needs, keep up your strength and energy level, and help you feel better. During treatment you may have to rely on snacks that are less healthy sources of calories to meet your needs. Keep in mind that this is just for a short while – once side effects go away you can return to a more healthy diet. To make it easier to add snacks to your daily routine, try the following:
- Eat small snacks throughout the day.
- Keep a variety of protein-rich snacks on hand that are easy to prepare and eat. These include yogurt, cereal and milk, half a sandwich, a bowl of hearty soup, and cheese and crackers.
- Avoid snacks that may make any treatment-related side effects worse. If you have diarrhea, for example, avoid popcorn and raw fruits and vegetables. If you have a sore throat, do not eat dry, coarse snacks or acidic foods.
- If you are able to eat normally and maintain your weight without snacks, then do not include them.
Examples of quick-and-easy snacks
Angel food cake
Cereal (hot or cold)
Granola or trail mix
Homemade milk shakes and drinks
Sandwiches such as egg salad, grilled cheese, or peanut butter
Ice cream, sherbet, and frozen yogurt
Soups (broth based or hearty)
Dips made with cheese, beans, yogurt, and peanut butter
Vegetables (raw, cooked, juices)
Yogurt (low fat or Greek)
Fruit (fresh, frozen, canned, dried)
Nuts, seeds, and nut butters
Tips to increase calories and protein
- Eat several small, frequent snacks throughout the day, rather than 3 large meals.
- Eat your favorite foods at any time of the day. For example, eat breakfast foods for dinner if they appeal to you.
- Eat every few hours. Don’t wait until you feel hungry.
- Eat your biggest meal when you feel hungriest. For example, if you are most hungry in the morning, make breakfast your biggest meal.
- Try to eat high-calorie, high-protein foods at each meal and snack.
- Exercise lightly or take a walk before meals to increase your appetite.
- Drink high-calorie, high-protein beverages like milk shakes and canned liquid supplements.
- Drink most of your fluids between meals instead of with meals. Drinking fluid with meals can make you feel too full.
- Try homemade or commercially prepared nutrition bars and puddings.
Eat cheese on toast or with crackers.
Add grated cheese to baked potatoes, vegetables, soups, noodles, meat, and fruit.
Use milk in place of water for hot cereal and soups.
Include cream or cheese sauces on vegetables and pasta.
Add powdered milk to cream soups, mashed potatoes, puddings, and casseroles.
Add yogurt or cottage cheese to favorite fruits or blended smoothies.
Keep hard-cooked eggs in the refrigerator. Chop and add to salads, casseroles, soups, and vegetables. Make a quick egg salad.
All eggs should be well-cooked to avoid the risk of harmful bacteria.
Pasteurized egg substitute is a low-fat alternative to regular eggs.
Meats, poultry, and fish
Add leftover cooked meats to soups, casseroles, salads, and omelets.
Mix diced and flaked cooked meat with sour cream and spices to make dip.
Beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds
Sprinkle seeds or nuts on desserts like fruit, ice cream, pudding, and custard. Also serve on vegetables, salads, and pasta.
Spread peanut or almond butter on toast and fruit or blend in a milk shake.
Melt over potatoes, rice, pasta, and cooked vegetables.
Stir melted butter into soups and casseroles and spread on bread before adding other ingredients to your sandwich.
Add whipping or heavy cream to desserts, pancakes, waffles, fruit, and hot chocolate; fold it into soups and casseroles.
Add sour cream to baked potatoes and vegetables.
Use regular (not low-fat or diet) mayonnaise and salad dressing on sandwiches and dips with vegetables and fruit.
Add jelly and honey to bread and crackers.
Add jam to fruit.
Use ice cream as a topping on cake.
*Adapted from Eldridge B, and Hamilton KK, Editors, Management of Nutrition Impact Symptoms in Cancer and Educational Handouts. Chicago, IL: American Dietetic Association; 2004.
Don’t forget about physical activity
Physical activity has many benefits. It helps you maintain muscle mass, strength, stamina, and bone strength. It can help reduce depression, stress, fatigue, nausea, and constipation. It can also improve your appetite. So, if you don’t already exercise, talk to your doctor about aiming for at least 150 minutes of moderate activity, like walking, each week. If your doctor approves, start small (maybe 5 to 10 minutes each day) and as you are able, work up to the goal of 150 minutes. Listen to your body, and rest when you need to. Now is not the time to push yourself to exercise. Do what you can when you are up to it.
Last Medical Review: 05/26/2012
Last Revised: 03/15/2013