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Eating Well During Cancer Treatment

By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Chemotherapy, radiation, and other cancer treatments can be hard on your body. Fortunately, making healthy food choices can help you feel better and speed your recovery.

Choose Healthy Foods

"When you're being treated for cancer, it's important to avoid extreme diets that may leave you short on key nutrients," says Veronica McLymont, PhD, RD, director of food and nutrition services at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Instead, focus on eating a balanced diet. Ask your oncologist or a nutritionist if you need extra calories and protein to keep your strength up during treatment.

  • Choose whole grain breads and cereals.
  • Drink 100% fruit or vegetable juices. (Make sure they are pasteurized because you may be more susceptible to germs while you’re getting cancer treatment.)
  • Fill half of your plate with vegetables and fruits. 
  • A few times a week, choose meatless meals such as vegetarian lasagna or vegetable stir-fry.
  • Snack on carrot sticks, sweet pepper slices, and fresh or dried fruits.
  • Have a leafy green salad with dinner.
  • Limit sugary foods -- the kind with lots of calories but very little nutrition.
  • Pick lean meats and fish more often than red meat and processed meats.

Try to Eat, Even If You Don't Have an Appetite

Lack of appetite is common during cancer treatment. Some treatments can even make food taste unpleasant. "Even though you don't feel like eating, it's important to get adequate nutrition," says Sarah Rafat, RD, a senior dietitian at MD Anderson Cancer Center. Here’s what to do:

  • Choose high-calorie, nutrient-rich foods such as avocados, nuts, beans, seeds, puddings, and cooked cereals.
  • Eat small meals throughout your day.
  • Don’t wait until you're hungry to eat. Instead, eat at certain times of day.
  • Keep your favorite foods close at hand.
  • Make your meals look appealing. Add parsley, lemon slices, cherry tomatoes, and other colorful garnishes to your plate.

Ease Side Effects With Food

Certain foods can help ease the common discomforts from cancer treatment.  

  • Conquer constipation by drinking water and eating high-fiber foods like beans, lentils, vegetables, and fresh or dried fruit.
  • Drive away diarrhea with bland foods such as rice, bananas, and apples. Drink water to stay hydrated.
  • Protect mouth sores and avoid dry mouth by grinding or pureeing foods to make them easier to swallow. Or eat foods that are already soft and mostly liquid, like soups and milk or yogurt shakes.
  • Nix nausea by choosing bland foods and foods without strong odors. Steer clear of greasy foods. Go easy on your stomach by eating small meals throughout the day. Drink plenty of water even if you are vomiting.

Focus on Food Safety

Some cancer treatments temporarily weaken your immune system. So it’s important to avoid germs that you can pick up from food. Contaminated food can make you quite sick. Here are some guidelines to help keep you safe.

  • Avoid cracked or unrefrigerated eggs.
  • Check expiration dates to avoid food spoilage, and throw away any moldy foods.
  • Cook all your meats until they're well done.
  • Don't buy bulk foods from open bins, like salad greens.
  • Keep all perishable foods in the fridge until you're ready to prepare them.
  • Prep your food on surfaces that are cleaned with soapy, hot water.
  • Use a separate cutting board for raw meat, fish, or poultry. Wash it thoroughly after each use.
  • Scrub and rinse fruits and vegetables thoroughly. Don’t eat any fruits or vegetables that you can’t wash easily, such as raspberries. Scrub the outsides, even if you don’t eat them, like the rind of a melon.

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