Nourishing Foods for Late-Stage Ovarian Cancer

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on July 17, 2022
5 min read

If you have late-stage ovarian cancer, your diet can be a powerful ally in your treatment, giving you the calories you need for energy and regulating your metabolism and immune system. Nutrition alone won’t cure cancer, but it may help you manage symptoms, avoid complications, and lessen side effects from treatments.

Early in your treatment, you may want to seek nutritional counseling. An accredited dietitian can help you manage symptoms and keep you on track with healthy nutritional goals before, during, and after your treatment.

Aim for a variety of colorful foods that pack a nutrition punch to give energy and help you stay at a healthy weight. Take small portions when you eat foods that pack a lot of calories without giving you much nutrition.

Start with foods you like, and try adding or taking away foods to achieve a balanced diet. If, for example, you don’t like vegetables, see if you can build up slowly to eating more. Drink six to eight glasses of water every day to head off constipation that some ovarian cancer medications can cause.

Whole vegetables. At each meal, try to fill half of your plate with a colorful mix of dark green or orange vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, carrots, and sweet potatoes. Others to put on your menu include beans and starchy vegetables such as potatoes and corn.

Whole fruit. Have one to two cups of fruit each day. For the most nutrition and fiber, eat whole fruit and stay away from juice.

Whole grains. At least half of all the grains in your diet should be whole. Look for products that are either 100% grains or have grains as the first ingredient on the list. Aim for 5 to 8 ounces of whole grains, depending on your calorie goals.

Plant or animal protein. Protein is an important part of your diet because it carries oxygen and helps your body mend. Strive for 5 to 7 ounces of lean protein each day from a variety of sources. Besides meat, poultry, and eggs, your options include seafood, nuts, seeds, and soy as well as beans and lentils.

Dairy and dairy alternatives. Foods like low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese contain calcium, potassium, vitamin D, and protein. These nutrients support healthy bones, teeth, and blood pressure. Aim for 3 cups of dairy each day. If you are lactose-intolerant, swap in low-lactose and lactose-free dairy products.

Foods with iron. Chemotherapy can cause fewer oxygen-carrying red blood cells in your body. You can offset this effect by eating lean beef and other foods that are rich in iron, such as eggs, leafy green vegetables, sesame seeds, and nuts.

Unsaturated oil. Although you may want to keep your diet low in fat, many oils are good sources of important fatty acids. A healthy range is between 20 and 30 grams each day. Unsaturated oils include canola, corn, olive, and sunflower oils. You can also get oils from seafood, olives, avocados, nuts, and seeds.

Ongoing research sometimes means that guidance can change about what kind of diet is best for people in cancer recovery. In one study, for example, people with ovarian cancer who followed a low-fat diet with lots of vegetables, fruit, and fiber had a 27% lower mortality rate.

Low-fat diets are linked with reducing visceral fat if you’re overweight or obese adults. This is the fat deep inside your belly that packs around your organs. Losing this type of fat supports your metabolism, the system your body uses to convert food into energy. Low-fat diets may also help you keep lean muscle. Many people with late-stage ovarian cancer have a high risk of losing muscle mass and strength.

But other studies suggest that getting more of your calories from protein and fat and fewer calories from carbohydrates could be better if you have advanced ovarian cancer. According to some research, cutting carbs may interrupt the growth of cancer cells that rely on glucose and insulin.

You may have heard that you should avoid soy products if you have a form of cancer related to hormone levels. This myth stems from the phytoestrogens that are commonly found in soy products. Phytoestrogens are natural compounds that resemble the estrogen in your body. This similarity allows them to play a role in hormonal signaling. Some scientists think they could interfere with cancer treatments.

Researchers are intrigued by the possible role of phytoestrogens to help or hinder cancer treatments. Some studies suggest that eating phytoestrogens may limit cell growth in certain tumors and activate some forms of cancer treatments, including chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and radiation.

Some interesting research that shows phytoestrogens could protect healthy cells from the damaging effects of cancer treatments. But these studies weren’t large enough to draw any conclusions. We need more research to learn whether phytoestrogens have potential as a therapy.

Meanwhile, most researchers think soy foods such as tofu and soy milk are safe for people with a history of ovarian cancer. Feel free to eat soy foods if you enjoy them, but there’s no reason to increase your intake.

Dietary supplements, multivitamins, natural medicines, and botanicals are popular. But it isn’t clear that they’re helpful for those with late-stage ovarian cancer. Some supplements can be harmful if taken over a long period of time. And some products, such as St. John’s wort, may hamper some forms of chemotherapy. Talk with your doctor before taking any supplement.

No matter how healthy your diet was before your cancer diagnosis, it can be hard to eat well during treatment. If you’re feeling pain, anxiety, or depression, you may lose interest in food. Many people with late-stage ovarian cancer have fatigue and nausea, get full very quickly, and have trouble swallowing. These symptoms can be caused by your treatments or by your condition. Here are a few tips to manage these issues:

  • Drink water, low-fat milk, fruit juice, smoothies, and sugar-free drinks.
  • Try milkshakes and yogurt-based smoothies. Add cream or full-fat milk to boost the calorie count.
  • Your taste buds may change throughout treatment. Foods that don’t agree with you at one point may taste better later. Certain foods may have no taste at all or may be so salty or sweet that you don’t want them. Keep an open mind and be ready to give certain foods another chance.
  • Chemo can make some foods taste metallic. Sour or tart foods and drinks can cover this up.
  • Boost flavor by adding sauces or fresh or dried herbs.
  • If it gets hard to swallow, puree your food. Eat each course separately to help your taste buds distinguish each food’s taste and color. Add liquid to make foods easier to swallow.
  • If cooking smells spoil your appetite, try eating your food chilled.
  • Settle your queasy stomach with ginger tea.
  • Ask your health care providers about nausea meds.
  • Resist the urge to skip meals when you’re queasy or get full quickly. A small amount of food in your stomach can sometimes make you feel better and help you avoid malnutrition.