Any cancer diagnosis is life-altering, bringing with it many new concerns to plan for and think about. Among these, worrying about what to eat may take a backseat to the overwhelming amount of information being shared with a patient and their caregivers. Nutrition can be a key element in helping to prepare for treatment and in managing the symptoms that start to appear.
Among other side effects, cancer and treatment of the disease may lead to weight loss, low appetite, anemia (very low iron levels), and fatigue. Because of a lowered immune system response, it may also increase the risk of infection and other illnesses. While these new symptoms can be very scary and surprising, understanding where food and nutrition can be used as tools may help to bring back some control to the patient facing these challenges. Proper nutrition during cancer may help to improve symptoms, help with tolerance during treatment and recovery afterwards, and may even lead to better outcomes.
Cancer treatments are designed to kill cancer cells, but unfortunately in the process will also damage healthy cells. These treatments can include chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, or other forms of immune system therapies. All of these take a large toll on the immune system and the body. Fueling for the road ahead with the right foods can help prepare the body for what’s to come.
Preparing for Cancer Treatment
Before treatment begins, eating a healthy, balanced diet and maintaining weight can help the body stay strong enough to withstand the medications.
A balanced diet includes foods like:
- Whole grains from brown rice and quinoa
- Fruits and vegetables (about 3-5 cups daily)
- Healthy fats like olive oil, avocado, nuts, and seeds
- Lean proteins from chicken, turkey, and fish
- A source of calcium like kale, okra, sardines, and fortified foods
MyPlate, based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, recommends filling half of your plate with fruits and vegetables. More emphasis should be placed on vegetables (about 40% of the 50% of your plate). Another 1/4 of your plate, or 25%, can be filled with whole grains, and the remaining 25% in lean proteins. While this may seem very specific, it should just serve as a guide to help with healthy eating habits.
Support Before and During Treatment
In addition to the toll that a new diagnosis and treatment for cancer will take on the body, there will also be a significant mental and emotional impact. Having a support system of friends, family members, and caregivers who can help to make eating healthily a bit more manageable will help to ease the burden of a cancer diagnosis.
Help can be offered through trips to the grocery store for someone who is sick or by preparing meals in bulk that can be stored in the freezer. Portioning meals out before freezing will make it easier to grab and eat when energy is low. Having shelf-stable foods on hand like canned beans and frozen vegetables helps to make sure that food doesn’t go bad while waiting for some strength to return to prepare foods again.
Food Safety During Treatment
To protect the immune system during chemotherapy, food safety is very important. Anyone preparing foods for someone with cancer or themselves as a cancer patient should follow a few safety precautions to ensure that food-borne bacteria and illness do not occur.
- Wash hands thoroughly before preparing food and eating
- Wash all produce – rinsing with a mixture of water and vinegar is an effective way to remove any bacteria and increase the life of your produce
- Avoid cross contamination from raw meats, seafood, and eggs – you can do this by making sure your hands are clean after working with any of these foods, using different cutting boards dedicated to chicken versus other foods, and sanitizing after use
- Know the cooking temperatures for meat to make sure things are cooked thoroughly before eating
Managing Symptoms During Treatment
As treatment begins, the medication may cause side effects. Common side effects include dehydration due to fluid loss like vomiting, nausea, appetite loss, and bowel irregularities. As appetite lowers and your body has trouble absorbing nutrients from the foods being eaten, general malnutrition may occur.
A few ways to help manage these symptoms are:
- Eating 6-8 smaller meals during the day rather than 3 large meals, to ease the burden on the digestive system
- Trying bland, soft, and easy-to-digest foods like soup, smoothies, soft vegetables, and oatmeal
- Drinking fluids regularly throughout the day, to prevent dehydration
Note: Side effects and symptoms from treatment will differ for each person so, if possible, it’s helpful to speak to an oncology dietitian or nutrition professional about foods to eat to help manage specific symptoms. If these services are not offered through your healthcare plan or hospital, certain cancer nonprofits like the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society offer free nutrition consultations to patients with all cancer types. Local organizations that are specific to certain types of cancers may also offer supportive services and resources.