What Is Cancer Metabolism?

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on November 13, 2022
3 min read

Cancer metabolism is a process in which cancer cells make the energy they need to grow and spread. It’s a target for researchers working to stop or slow down cancers.

Metabolism is how the cells in your body use carbohydrates, fats, and proteins from food to get the energy they need to grow, reproduce, and stay healthy.

Cancer cells do that differently. Compared to healthy cells, they use more glucose (a type of carbohydrate). And they create less energy while making what they need to multiply and spread. Stopping that process while leaving healthy cells alone is a goal.

These are a newer approach to cancer treatment. Unlike chemotherapy and radiation, targeted therapies don’t immediately kill cancer cells. Instead, they keep cancer cells from growing by changing or slowing the cancer metabolism. The tumor eventually shrinks and dies.

Because of the way they work, targeted therapies affect mainly cancers cells and leave normal, healthy cells alone. They don’t kill the cancer cells right away. They stop them from copying themselves and making new ones. So they don’t damage normal, healthy cells the way chemotherapy does.

Targeted therapies may be used in the treatment of several types of cancer, including bladder, breast, lung, kidney, gastric (stomach), melanoma, some types of leukemia and lymphoma, and others.

Researchers are working to come up with new ways to hamper cancer metabolism. This work is in the early stages -- mostly in lab studies and tests in animals. It isn’t ready for use in people yet. Potential targets include:

  • Glucose. Early lab studies show that reducing glucose with medications or changes in diet (or both) may help treat cancer. It’s too soon to know if this will work in people, or what the best plan is, or which cancers it works for.
  • Amino acids. Cancer cells also use amino acids, which are building blocks for proteins in your body, to grow. Targeting certain ones could cut off a cancer’s “food” supply.
  • Cancer’s messaging systems. Some cancer cells have certain types of proteins and enzymes that differ from those of normal cells. They send messages to help them grow and spread. Medications could block or turn off signals that send these messages, or signal the cancer cells to destroy themselves.

Nutrition is another area of research. Some of this work looks at the effects of fasting and keto diets. If you’re looking at diet as a way to specifically target cancer metabolism, keep in mind that there aren’t guidelines on how to do this yet. Experts recommend that people with cancer eat and drink a wide variety of foods that provide nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates, fat, and water. The American Cancer Society recommends eating a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, legumes, and limiting red meat, processed meat, sugar-sweetened drinks, and highly processed foods.

Show Sources


National Cancer Institute Center for Cancer Research: “Cell Metabolism and Cancer,” “Nutrition in Cancer Care (PDQ) -- Patient Version.”

American Cancer Society: “How Targeted Therapies Are Used to Treat Cancer,” “American Cancer Society Guideline for Diet and Physical Activity.”

ScienceDirect: “Teaching the basics of cancer metabolism: Developing antitumor strategies by exploiting the differences between normal and cancer cell metabolism.”

Cancer Discovery: “Targeting cancer metabolism: dietary and pharmacologic interventions.”

View privacy policy, copyright and trust info