When you are undergoing cancer treatment, it may be difficult to get all of the nutrients your body needs because of lack of appetite or side effects from chemotherapy. To help build up your strength and withstand the effects of your cancer and cancer treatment, you may need to change your diet — adding certain foods and avoiding others.

Some of the treatments you receive to help destroy the cancer cells may also damage healthy cells in your body. This is what causes the cancer treatment side effects. Some side effects that may affect your nutrition include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, taste changes, and feeling tired or weak.

It’s also possible that you may not have any of these side effects. Each cancer treatment is different and the way people respond to and tolerate treatments can be very different as well. Many side effects can be controlled and most go away after treatment ends. Speak with your doctor and oncology nurse about any side effects you may be experiencing, as there are many different ways to help you feel better and maintain good nutrition.

Your Diet

Your diet is an important part of your cancer treatment. Eating the right kinds of foods and taking the right kinds of nutritional supplements can help you feel better and stay stronger. Recommendations about food and nutrition for cancer patients can be very different from the usual suggestions for healthful eating. This can be confusing for many patients because these new suggestions may seem to be the opposite of what they’ve always heard. The focus of good nutrition for patients with cancer is to take in more calories and protein. To do this, the emphasis is on higher-calorie foods.

Other suggestions might include increasing your use of sauces and gravies or changing your cooking methods to include more butter, margarine, or oil. Sometimes, nutrition recommendations for cancer patients suggest that you eat less of certain high-fiber foods because these foods can aggravate problems such as diarrhea or a sore mouth. Nutrition recommendations for cancer patients are different because they are designed to help build up your strength and help you withstand the effects of your cancer and its treatment.

When you are healthy, eating enough food to get the nutrients you need is usually not a problem. However, during cancer treatment, it may become challenging for you to get the nutrients your body needs — especially if you are experiencing any side effects.

The Focus: High Calorie / High Protein Diet

Cancer patients, especially those undergoing chemotherapy, need higher amounts of protein and calories. Protein helps repair body tissues and helps us maintain a healthy immune system. When the body lacks enough protein, it takes longer to recover from illness and there is a tendency to have a lower resistance to infection. Following surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy, additional protein is needed to heal tissues and to help prevent infection. Sources of protein are generally found in lean meat, fish, poultry, dairy products, nuts, dried beans, peas, lentils, and soy foods. Patients who maintain good protein stores often times cope better with the potential side effects of cancer treatment.

Tips for adding more calories and protein to your diet:

  • Keep quick and easy snacks handy (cheese, crackers, muffins, ice cream, peanut butter, fruit, and pudding).
  • Try to drink plenty of liquids throughout the day, such as juice and milk-based drinks (Ensure, Boost).
  • For extra protein, consider adding nonfat, instant dry milk to scrambled eggs, soup, cereal, sauces, and gravies.
  • Try to eat more hard-cooked eggs, luncheon meats, peanut butter, cheese, ice cream, granola bars, nutritional supplements, pudding, chips, and crackers.
  • Melt cheese on sandwiches, breads, muffins, omelets, tortillas, chicken, or fish.
  • Add cottage cheese/ricotta cheese to casseroles or pasta, bread, fruits, or crackers.
  • Add chopped, hard-boiled eggs to salads, vegetables, and casseroles.
  • Make custards and puddings with eggs and whole milk.
  • Use milk instead of water for liquid when cooking, use in preparing cereal, soups, hot chocolate, use to make cream sauces for vegetables.
  • Add dry, instant milk to milk drinks, use in cream soups, mashed potatoes, and cream.
  • Add sources of soy to your diet such as edamame or add soy crumbles to vegetable dishes and salads.
  • Spread peanut butter on sandwiches, crackers, muffins, fruit and celery, use as a dip for vegetables.
  • Eat ice cream, yogurt, and frozen yogurt.
  • Add chopped, cooked meats, or fish to salads and casseroles.
  • Add beans to soups, pastas, and main dishes.
  • Sprinkle nuts on fruit, cereal, salads or desserts.
  • Add butter/margarine into cream soups, add to any entree or side dish.

Remember: you will need to modify your diet if you are experiencing diarrhea, constipation, nausea/vomiting, or mouth sores. Please refer to those sections under Side Effects.

For additional tips on maintaining good nutrition please visit the American Cancer Society at www.cancer.org We can assist you with a Nutritionist to help plan and manage your diet.