Why (and how) you should eat healthy during cancer treatment

Woman making a healthy breakfast with her daughter.

During cancer treatment, eating healthy food — and eating enough of it — can be difficult. Whether due to side effects of treatment or new dietary needs, it can be tough to keep up with the nutritional demands of cancer treatment.

Still, eating healthy equips your body to handle treatment and recover. Here’s why it’s important to eat healthy during cancer treatment and steps you can take to help improve your diet.

Why your body needs healthy nutrition during cancer treatment

Even without cancer treatment, your diet is an important factor in how well your body operates. Add in treatments that can be physically demanding and what you eat becomes crucial in how you respond to treatment.

"Cancer treatment requires strength and energy. Eating healthy foods prepares your body for these demands both before treatment and as you heal and recover from each treatment," says Ajay Kumar, MD, a hematologist and medical oncologist at Main Line Health.

Nutritious food can also:

  • Improve your defenses against infection
  • Prevent tissues in your body from breaking down
  • Support the growth of new, healthy body tissue, which is key for effective healing
  • Help you cope with side effects of treatment, such as fatigue, malaise, nausea and bowel irregularities (diarrhea, constipation, etc.)
  • Help you handle the intensive nature of some treatments

Most cancer treatments are more effective if you’re well-nourished throughout treatment.

Ways to improve your diet during cancer treatment

Eating enough of the right foods during cancer treatment surely is easier said than done. However, here are some practical ways to improve your diet and set yourself up for success.

1. Eat what you want, when you want it.

To ensure you’re eating enough food, give yourself the flexibility to eat the foods you love when you want to eat them. For instance, you might eat breakfast foods like waffles or omelets for dinner. Or, you might eat a quesadilla when you first wake up.

Similarly, don’t feel constrained by a normal meal schedule. If you’re hungriest in the morning, that might be your biggest meal. And if you get hungry an hour later, it’s okay to eat again.

"What’s important is that you’re listening to your body and providing it with the fuel it needs — a crucial component of cancer treatment," says Dr. Kumar.

2. Snack freely.

Just as you should eat meals when you’re hungry, snacking provides similar benefits by providing your body with calories and protein to heal and maintain your weight. Snacks also provide you with energy and strength — both of which are crucial when undergoing cancer treatment.

When snacking, focus on small snacks throughout the day. Protein-rich snacks are ideal (such as yogurt, cheese and crackers, half of a sandwich or nutritional shakes/drinks (such as Ensure®, Boost®, etc.), but if your snacks are a little less healthy than normal for the time being, that’s okay.

"Keep in mind, you may want to avoid snacks that can make the side effects of treatment worse, such as acidic and spicy foods, if you have a sore mouth/throat, or too much raw fruits, if you experience diarrhea," says Dr. Kumar.

3. Try new foods.

Cancer treatment might make you enjoy foods you didn’t enjoy before. This is because certain treatments can impact how foods taste, such as making them too bland.

If you’re up for it, try new foods that you normally wouldn’t eat. For instance, you might experiment with a new meat marinade to give your bland-tasting chicken a flavor boost. You never know what new favorite foods you might acquire!

4. Focus on fruits and veggies.

Fruits and vegetables naturally improve your health because they are jam-packed with nutrients. This makes them a great part of your diet during cancer treatment.

Make sure to wash all raw fruits and veggies with water and lightly scrub them with a vegetable brush. This helps you avoid infection-causing bacteria when your immune system isn’t at its strongest. It’s best to avoid raw vegetables like alfalfa sprouts and radishes as you undergo cancer treatment because they carry a risk of food poisoning.

5. Avoid certain foods.

Generally, nothing is off limits unless it increases your risk of infections during cancer treatments. However, make sure to wash all raw fruits and veggies thoroughly before consuming.

It’s also a good idea to avoid raw meats (sushi, raw oysters, etc.) and unpasteurized dairy products to minimize risk of food-borne illnesses.

6. Stay active to stay hungry.

If you’re not hungry, it might be time to get moving. Exercise — even just small amounts of it — can improve your appetite if you aren’t feeling hungry during or after your treatment.

Physical activity can also:

  • Build muscle mass and bone strength
  • Reduce stress and depression
  • Improve energy
  • Ease nausea and other gastrointestinal issues, particularly constipation

"As always, pay attention to your body. If you’re feeling up to it, engage in some physical activity. If you’re feeling tired, be sure to give your body the rest it needs," say Dr. Kumar.

Staying healthy throughout cancer treatment

Cancer treatment has the crucial job of destroying cancer cells, but it can also take a toll on your body. Eating healthy can give it the strength and stamina it needs during this time. Remember — all cancer is different, and so is each cancer’s treatment. Talk to your health care provider about the best ways to care for your body during treatment.

Quality nutrition is always important. During cancer treatment, it can give you the extra boost to stay healthy now and in the years to come.

Next steps:

Learn more about Ajay Kumar, MD
Learn more about cancer care at Main Line Health
The importance of attending cancer support groups