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Don’t Underestimate the Importance of Good Nutrition during Cancer Treatment

by Jennifer Fitzgibbon, MS, RDN, CSO, CDN

A cancer diagnosis is life alter­ing, to say the least. As soon as you hear the words “you have cancer,” you are thrust into a world of complex medical language, difficult treatment decisions, and overwhelming emotions. Your diet is probably the last thing on your mind.

However, you may want to think twice about putting nutrition on the backburner after a cancer diagnosis. Nutrition is an important part of cancer care. Eating the right kinds of foods, in the right amounts, and at the right times can make a noticeable difference in your cancer treatment and recovery. Research has shown that eating well during cancer treatment can help you
keep your scheduled appointments;
increase your strength and energy;
stay hydrated;
boost your immune system;
decrease your risk of infection;
maintain your prescribed treatments;
heal and recover more quickly;
maintain a healthy weight;
preserve your body’s store of nutrients; and
better tolerate treatment-related side effects.

Treating Nutrition Problems Early
Both cancer and its treatments can affect the way your body tolerates cer­tain foods and uses nutrients. Likewise, your nutritional status can affect how well you tolerate cancer treatments. For example, someone who is underweight or malnourished may not be able to endure cancer treatment as well as some­one who is well nourished. Therefore, it’s important to find and treat nutrition problems early.

Plant foods should form the basis of your diet. At each meal, try to fill two-thirds of your plate with colorful plant foods.

Author of Article photo

Jennifer Fitzgibbon

A thorough nutrition screening and assessment should be done soon after cancer diagnosis in order to find prob­lems that may affect how well your body can deal with the effects of cancer treatment. Finding and treating these problems early can help you maintain an optimal weight, prevent nutrition-related treatment issues, and improve recovery. Your nutrition assessment can also assist your doctor or dietitian in developing a personalized plan to help you eat well during cancer treatment.

Getting the Right Nutrients
Eating well means eating a variety of foods that provide the nutrients you need to maintain your health while fighting cancer. These nutrients include protein, carbohydrates, fat, water, vitamins, and minerals. A healthy diet during cancer treatment should consist of an assortment of foods from all of the food groups.

Plant foods should form the basis of your diet. You should eat five to eight servings of fruits and vegetables every day. At each meal, try to fill two-thirds of your plate with colorful plant foods. Keep in mind, however, that some peo­ple may need to avoid eating raw fruits and vegetables at certain times during cancer treatment; for example, when your blood counts are low. Talk with your doctor about whether there are any foods you need to avoid and when you can introduce them back into your diet. In the meantime, cooked fruits and vegetables are always an option.

Protein assists with growth and the repair of body tissue. It is also essential to maintaining a healthy immune system. People with cancer often need extra protein. Good sources of protein include lean meat, fish, poultry, dairy products, nuts, dried beans, peas, lentils, and soy foods. Supplemental shakes can also provide additional protein if needed.

Carbohydrates supply the body with the bulk of the calories it needs to func­tion properly. The amount of calories you need depends on your height, weight, gender, age, and activity level. Good sources of carbohydrates include fruits, vegetables, whole grain breads, pasta, whole grain cereals, dried beans, peas, and lentils. Refined carbohydrates, like white breads, white rice, and pasta, can provide needed calories, but they should be consumed sparingly.

Fats play an important role in nutri­tion. Contrary to what some people believe, you do need healthy fats in your diet, as they are a valuable source of energy. Fats are found in butter, mar­garine, oils, nuts, seeds, dairy products, meats, fish, and poultry. However, you should keep in mind that some types of fats are considered healthier than are others.

Healthy fats, like those contained in nuts and seeds, help protect against heart disease, decrease triglycerides, and lower blood pressure. Healthy fats are divided into two groups: monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats, which include omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

Unhealthy fats include trans fats and saturated fats. The most common sources of trans fats in our diets are partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. These are found in many convenience items, baked goods, and deep fried foods. Saturated fats are found mainly in animal sources. It’s a good idea to limit the amount of trans fats and saturated fats you consume.

Vitamins and minerals help us to heal and grow. They also allow the body to use the energy (calories) sup­plied in foods. A person who eats a balanced diet usually gets plenty of vitamins and minerals from the food they eat. However, eating a balanced diet can be challenging when you are undergoing cancer treatment, particu­larly if bothersome treatment side effects like nausea, vomiting, mouth sores, and taste changes persist. If you think you’re not getting the vitamins and minerals you need in your diet, ask your doctor or dietitian about whether you should take a daily multivitamin or mineral sup­plement.

Water and other fluids are also essential to your health. If you don’t take in enough fluids, you may become dehydrated, which can lead to high blood pressure, dizziness, nausea, and mouth sores. In general, you should drink about eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day to stay hydrated. If you are having trouble taking in enough liquids, or if you are experi­encing vomiting or diarrhea, talk to your doctor about what you can do to prevent dehydration.

Good nutrition is important for everyone, especially people undergoing cancer treatment. Not only will eating a healthy diet help you cope better with the side effects of treatment, but it may also help those treatments work better. If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, talk with your doctor about how you can incorporate nutrition into your cancer care plan.

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Jennifer Fitzgibbon is a board-certified registered oncology dietitian at Stony Brook University Cancer Center in Stony Brook, NY, where she helps cancer survivors main­tain their weight, strength, and quality of life during cancer treatment.

To learn more about diet and nutrition during cancer treatment, visit

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2015.