When you're being treated for cancer, it's more important than ever to eat a
healthy diet and get good nutrition -- but it can also be more difficult than
ever. Your body is working overtime to fight the cancer, while it's also doing
extra duty to repair healthy cells that may have been damaged as a side effect
of treatments like chemotherapy and radiation. At the same time, many cancer
treatments -- especially chemotherapy -- come with side effects that drain your
strength and sap your appetite. So how can you make sure you're getting all the
essential nutrients, vitamins, and minerals you need?
You might assume the answer lies in power doses of vitamin supplements.
After all, if you're having trouble keeping food down, wouldn't it be easier to
get nutrients from a simple capsule? Not necessarily. "If you want to
supplement the nutrition you get from your regular diet, we recommend taking
just one multivitamin per day from a reputable manufacturer," says Gary
Deng, MD, assistant attending and assistant member in the Integrative Medicine
Service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
These four women lead very different lives, but they all have one thing in common: They developed breast cancer at a young age. They discovered community within the Young Survival Coalition, a national organization dedicated to providing support to young women with breast cancer -- and raising awareness of the disease in women under 40.
"We suggest that patients avoid high-dose multivitamins, because there
is some concern that some of these, especially those with high-dose
antioxidants, may interfere with treatment. As long as there remains
controversy about this, we think it's prudent not to take high-dose
Plus, it's almost impossible to get "too much" of any given vitamin
through food alone, while loading up on some vitamins in pill form can cause
problems, like dangerous buildup in the liver. If a certain amount of a
nutrient is good for you, twice or three times as much is not necessarily
Certain kinds of herbal supplements, like St. John's wort, can also interact
badly with some types of cancer treatment. "Some complex herbal extracts
may contain substances that can change drug metabolism, interfering with the
way in which your body metabolizes chemotherapy," warns Deng. Talk to your
doctor before taking any type of herbal product or supplement during cancer
Get Vitamins In Food, Not Capsules
Instead, say experts, focus on what you need most now: calories. When you're
being treated for cancer, taking in enough calories to maintain your strength
and keep your body going trumps pretty much everything else. "For many
people undergoing chemotherapy, we're happy to tell them to eat whatever they
like to eat. If it appeals to you and you can keep it down, then eat it,"
says Deng. "If you ask someone to eat too strict a diet, often they end up
not eating enough."
If you have trouble eating enough at mealtimes, many experts recommend
adding a nutritional supplement nutrition drink to the menu. Check the label to
make sure your supplement shake contains a variety of vitamins and minerals.
Most 8-ounce nutritional supplement drinks are fortified to provide 25% of the
vitamins you need each day.