Eating a healthy diet during cancer treatment is essential on many different levels. Your diet provides and assists in replenishing nutrients and minerals depleted from undergoing treatment. Certain types of cancer treatments (chemotherapy or radiation therapy) can be highly taxing, so by fuelling your body with nutrient-dense whole foods, you can create an environment that promotes repair, recovery and overall health and wellbeing.
The importance of maintaining a healthy diet during cancer treatment
What to eat during cancer treatment
You may find that your energy levels run low quickly. It’s important to supply your body with snacks, or smaller and more frequent meals. Eating three large meals a day may be too difficult for your system to process, and it may not meet your energy demands as per usual.1
Choosing nutrient-dense meals or snacks instead of processed or nutrient-sparse foods is vital.2 When you have the opportunity, select organic produce. While this can sometimes come with a higher price point, eating organic means you aren’t consuming herbicides, pesticides and growth hormones.
Organic grass-fed meat, free-range poultry and wild-caught fish are ideal protein sources since they’re not fed growth hormones or antibiotics, which is something you want to avoid when undergoing cancer treatment. The labelling on these products will specify whether they meet this criteria or not, or you can go to a free-range or organic butcher.
Avoid all processed meats such as salami and other cold meats, as they have been directly linked to increasing the risk of cancer.3
If you have particular food intolerances or allergies, continue to avoid these foods. Doing so will help to reduce unnecessary inflammation occurring within the body.
Should you notice yourself losing weight, we recommend you speak to your doctor and/or nurse at Icon who can refer you to a dietitian or nutritionist if the condition escalates.
How treatment can affect nutrition
Cancer treatment is a process of destroying cancer cells; however, depending on the type of treatment you receive, this may also damage healthy cells and cause side effects. The side effects of treatment will often influence your choice in food based on how you feel at the time.
We recommend that you focus on eating whenever you feel the urge to eat, rather than worrying about eating types of food that coincide with a particular time of day (for example, eggs at breakfast or fish for lunch). Whatever the time of day, if your body craves a particular type of food, choose that. Don’t add more stress to your situation by thinking that you shouldn’t be eating breakfast foods at dinner, or vice versa. Relax any dietary restriction you may have had before treatment.
Should you struggle to have an appetite; we suggest some light exercise, which can help to stimulate a desire to eat.
Some treatments will change the way foods taste and smell. You may find that after chemotherapy, your mouth’s taste receptors change. After radiation therapy or any surgeries from the neck upwards, your taste buds on your tongue and salivary glands may be damaged and your food preferences may shift.1 Food may taste more metallic, like cardboard, or you may all of a sudden have no desire to eat a food you once loved. This will likely return to normal, but it may take several months. In the meantime, eat what feels nourishing.
Other side effects impacting your appetite include:
- changes in smell
- nausea and vomiting
- dry mouth, chewing and swallowing problems
- diarrhoea or other bowel irritations
If you have any questions regarding your nutrition and diet during cancer treatment, speak with your oncologist.
- Learn more about what to eat during chemotherapy in this video.
- Learn more about taking Traditional Chinese Medicines during chemotherapy in this video.
Young Women’s Cancer Program
The Icon Young Women’s Cancer Program is also here to support you during this time. This program is designed to help young women through their cancer journey by supporting them at every stage. This includes connecting them with dietitians and relevant services when it comes to healthy eating and diet changes during and after a cancer diagnosis. For more information, click here.
- Nutrition for people living with cancer. Cancer Council Victoria. Retrieved 18th March 2020. https://www.cancervic.org.au/living-with-cancer/nutrition/nutrition-for-people-living-with-cancer
- NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms. National Cancer Institute. Retrieved 18th March, 2020. https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/nutrient-dense-food
- Animal protein and cancer risk. Osher Centre for Integrative Medicine. Retrieved 18th March, 2020. https://osher.ucsf.edu/patient-care/integrative-medicine-resources/cancer-and-nutrition/faq/animal-protein-cancer-risk
- Treatment side effects and nutrition; Loss of appetite. Cancer Council Victoria. Retrieved 18th March, 2020. https://www.cancervic.org.au/living-with-cancer/nutrition/treatment-side-effects-and-nutrition