How to Eat Well When You Have Cancer

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Eating a nutrient-rich, well-balanced diet is how everyone fuels their body with the energy they need to stay well, fight disease, and function on a day-to-day basis. That doesn’t change if you have cancer. If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with cancer, good nutrition is important—for your treatment, your recovery, and other aspects of your long-term health.

“Cancer cannot be cured with any one particular diet or way of eating,” explains Cara Anselmo, MS, RD, Clinical Dietitian Nutritionist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. “But we can use diet to support treatment and prevent other problems.”

Eating well helps people with cancer maintain the strength and energy to tolerate cancer treatments, better tolerate treatment-related side effects, have lower risk of infection, and heal and recover faster.

But for many people with cancer, eating a well-balanced, nutritious diet can be challenging. Cancer treatment and symptoms of the disease itself can affect appetite, chewing, swallowing, and digestion, making it difficult for people with some cancers to continue eating in a way they would have before diagnosis.

Here’s what you should know about how a cancer diagnosis might affect eating—and some tips for how to maintain a healthy diet during treatment and recovery.

How cancer can affect the way you eat

Different types of cancer are not treated the same way, do not affect everyone in the same way, and can have radically different symptoms. So some people with cancer may notice little or no changes in terms of appetite, eating, and how their bodies process the food they eat.

Others may notice significant changes to their eating and diet because of the disease. For example:

  • People with cancers of the digestive tract or any bodily system involved in eating may see dramatic changes in terms of what types of food their bodies want and can tolerate.
  • People with cancer who require radiation to the pelvis may have diarrhea or constipation and have trouble tolerating high-fiber foods.
  • People with cancer who require radiation to the head or neck may have difficulty chewing or swallowing. In extreme cases they may require a feeding tube.
  • People receiving chemotherapy and other anticancer drugs can incur other side effects that affect eating, such as nausea, loss of appetite, dry mouth, mouth sores, changes in taste or smell, vomiting, and fatigue.

And remember that getting diagnosed with cancer is a major life-changing event that can bring with it a lot of stress, anxiety, and, in some cases, depression. “Those mental health concerns can have severe effects on appetite and eating,” Anselmo says.

Foods to eat when you have cancer

In general, people with cancer should be eating the same types of foods that are good for everyone else. Focus on eating whole foods (rather than processed ones), plenty of fruits and vegetables, high-fiber foods such as whole grains and legumes, healthy fats, and overall enough calories, Anselmo says. “We know that maintaining lean muscle mass and body weight is linked to better outcomes when it comes to cancer treatments,” she adds.

That said, nutrition advice and recommendations can vary by cancer type, disease stage, and the individual patient.

For instance, for a woman in her 50s with breast cancer who may be at increased risk of heart disease and diabetes, avoiding unintended weight gain is important. Her diet during cancer treatment will look a lot different from a woman who is 80 years old and has late-stage lung cancer. The goal for that woman will likely focus on getting sufficient calorie and protein intake.

Eating for specific problems

Some additional concerns specific to certain types of cancers or treatment are:

  • Chewing or swallowing issues: For someone with cancer who is having trouble chewing or swallowing, high-protein, calorie-dense snacks and nutritional shakes can help deliver the sustenance they need.
  • Drug interactions: Some people with cancer will start medications that interact with certain common foods. People receiving certain chemotherapy drugs, for example, are advised to avoid drinking grapefruit juice. Check with your doctor if you are unsure if there are any specific foods you should be avoiding during treatment.
  • Constipation or diarrhea: If someone with cancer has a lot of constipation or diarrhea, they should avoid high-fiber foods and focus on more bland options, such as plain pasta, white bread, bananas, and chicken.
  • Immunosuppression: If your immune system is suppressed or you have neutropenia (meaning you have abnormally low levels of a certain type of white blood cell), you’ll be put on a neutropenic diet. It means you’ll focus on limiting your exposure to bacteria and other harmful organisms that might be found in food. You’ll likely be directed to avoid foods such as sushi, raw or rare meat, uncooked or undercooked eggs, unpasteurized milks or juices, salad bars, certain cheeses, raw sprouts, and unwashed fruits and vegetables.

More tips for how to eat well if you have cancer

If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with cancer and you have questions about an appropriate diet looks like, ask your oncologist or medical provider to recommend a dietitian you can talk to, who can tailor dietary recommendations for you. You’ll also want to consult your medical provider before trying any major dietary change (such as eliminating food groups, adding supplements, or juice fasting) to check if it’s safe and won’t interfere with your treatment.

Other resources to get help with nutrition advice or access to food and meals include:

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