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Cancer Care | Diet & Nutrition | Digestive Health | Living With Chronic Conditions
peanut butter on bread

‘I Have Cancer — What Should I Eat?’

Keys to better nutrition while getting cancer treatment

Contributor: Lindsay Malone, RD

When you’re being treated for cancer, the last thing you want to think about is sticking to a diet.

I don’t ask people undergoing cancer treatment to do this — I would never overwhelm you with what you “should” be eating.

As a dietitian my job is to set a foundation to keep you feeling as strong and healthy as possible while you’re getting treatment.

The foundation of eating with cancer

The main nutritional goals during cancer therapy include getting enough:

  • Fluids to stay hydrated (mostly from caffeine-free fluids)
  • Energy (calories) and nutrients from healthy foods
  • Protein to help maintain lean body mass/muscle

Every patient is different. What works for some may not work for others. If there’s a problem with swallowing or appetite, we adapt to what you find appealing and what is comfortable for you to eat.

Overall, though, our main goal is to provide calories through nutrient-rich foods.

Many patients can follow a normal, healthy diet

If you don’t have nutrition-related side effects from your cancer treatment that limit your ability to eat and/or digest food, you can follow a generally healthy diet that includes:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Beans
  • Nutritious fats
  • Lean protein

Convenient foods that provide nutrients

If you suffer side effects from treatment like fatigue and digestive problems, it is helpful to include foods that take little or no preparation and are easy to eat — and easy on your stomach. I don’t mean junk food full of empty calories, but more convenient choices that still provide the nutrients you need.

Here are suggestions my patients tend to like:

Fresh fruit. The best choices are fruit that is refreshing, easy to eat and high in water content. Melons, berries, pineapple, bananas, pears and canned or jarred fruit in their own juices are all popular.

Yogurt. It’s easy to eat and promotes healthy digestion. Choose flavored or plain varieties.

Hot or cold cereal. Anything from oatmeal to Cream of Wheat ® to cold toasted oats cereal are good choices — whatever you like. Rice-based cereals are particularly good if you are having digestive difficulties.

Peanut butter or cheese. Choose whole grain crackers for fiber (if appropriate) and protein. Look for 100 percent peanut butter made without added oils.

Whole grains. Eat whole-grain breads and crackers — be sure it says “100 percent whole grain” on the package. Whole grain promotes regularity and digestive health; too much refinement can strip away fiber, protein and other nutrients.

Meats and poultry. Look for whole, unprocessed meats without nitrates. Rotisserie chicken is a convenient choice, as are chicken or tuna salad and meats/poultry softened in soups and stews. The slow cooker is a great way to prepare meat or poultry that is convenient.

Eggs (cooked). Eat only cooked eggs (scrambled, hard boiled, omelettes). Raw eggs are unsafe, even dropped into a smoothie.

Food safety tips

Finally, preparing and cooking food safely is an extremely important piece of the puzzle. Keep in mind these tips:

  • Cook meat, poultry, fish and eggs to proper temperatures (visit the USDA’s website for specific guidelines)
  • Wash fruits and vegetables
  • Clean hands/sink/surfaces/cutting boards
  • Be aware of food safety at restaurants

More information

Tags: cancer diet, chemotherapy, eating with cancer, healthy eating, radiation
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  • Jose M. Lagomasino

    This article is simply excellent and awesome.

    I applause and congratulate the author or authors of this paper o reprint.

    Jose M. Lagomasino

  • Brussett

    When my husband had breast cancer, it was recommended that he not eat his favorite foods because of a bad association with chemo after he would recover. Turned out to be good advice for him.

  • jerry lee

    NO SUGAR FOODS…..KETOGENIC DIET IS THE BEST……NO Red MEAT

  • John O’Brien

    No sugar, white flour and no animal fats. I’m surprised at you Cleveland Clinic. These trio feed cancer tumors and make ‘em grow. Get the word out now!

    • Nancy M Rodriguez

      Totally agree with John O’Brien..no dairy no meat no sugar!!!

  • Dr. Viny

    Lindsay, can you please clarify some of the myths regarding “sugar feeding cancer”? It is simply an inappropriate oversimplification of the Warburg hypothesis without prospective (or retrospective for that matter) support. A heart healthy, well balanced diet as you describe is what I recommend as well. Thanks!

  • Fredrick Kiesecker

    Watch out for those whole gtains the first ingrediant is usuall always high fructose corn syrup and why do the cancer patients always get an IV of sugar. lots if generalizations in the above list hope there are no undiagnosed. gluten sensitive people following this. Be careful what you read it not alwats good advice

  • Francesco Mariglia

    If the person writing this article was a graduate from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, it would be a much more specific and healthy diet specific for a disease that feeds on sugar. For instance, the holistic nutritionist at Columbia Presbysterian Hospital pediatric oncology department, as part of the integrative medicine and complementary medicine initiative program, was not allowed to conflict with the registered dietitians on staff. Hence, the children became victim to a ton of sugar since it “calmed the children.” And they each died a miserable death. Also, the simple fact that flavored yogurt is being recommended is a tell tale sign of complete ignorance and unaccountable education. Any yogurt that is other than plain (fruit flavored) has the equivalent of 47 grams of sugar in it. That is quite a feast for a cancer patient. Maybe by “calming the children” they mean killing the children faster.

  • Joan Sjolie

    My Uncle’s widow died at 109 years, She was asked by the local newspaper at her 100th birthday what she ate. She said that she had to have her meat and potatoes every day and ate lots of fruits and vegetables.