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What to Eat During Cancer Treatment

by Holly Clegg

Wellness image

A cancer diagnosis affects every aspect of a person’s life. Much attention is focused on surgery, chemo, and radiotherapy, but a nutritional assessment is equally important. A healthy diet can keep up your strength and immune system, and what you eat may make a difference in how well you handle treatment.

Something as seemingly simple as diet management becomes complex after a cancer diagnosis. With side effects such as fatigue, nausea, and other symptoms associated with cancer treatment, staying well nourished may be challenging. Regardless of the type cancer or the treatment, each person responds differently. With an awareness of the foods best tolerated and those that ease the symptoms of treatment, you may be able to eat well and stay properly nourished.

As treatment begins, your diet is in constant flux, changing with taste preferences, intolerance of certain foods, and caloric needs. So, how is the family cook to cope? The following tips will guide you through the right foods to eat when experiencing various side effects to help you maintain a better quality of life.

During chemotherapy, your taste buds and cravings may change.

Author of Article photo

Holly Clegg

During Treatment
Prior to treatment, a low fat, light meal, including foods such as cereal, toast, oatmeal, grits, fruit cocktail, or nectar, is recommended. In the 24 hours after treatment, you may begin liquids, soups, puddings, and sandwiches. It’s important to avoid high fat, fried, or greasy foods for the first 24 hours following treatment.

During chemotherapy, your taste buds and cravings may change. If you can only tolerate certain foods, then have those desirable foods for every meal until your appetite resumes. When there is a loss of appetite, try to “power pack” your meals by eating higher calorie food without sacrificing nutrition – add protein using fortified milk, peanut butter, cheese, and eggs. Add instant milk to sauces, and add nuts, avocados, and fruits to recipes. Foods that provide seven grams of protein per serving include one to two ounces of nuts, two tablespoons of peanut butter, one cup of rice, one ounce of cheese, and seven ounces of milk or yogurt. Also, being well hydrated may reduce some side effects of treatment.

When You Have Neutropenia
Neutropenia, or low white blood cell count, typically occurs after several chemotherapy treatments and lasts four to seven days. During this time, you may be susceptible to infection, so you should avoid lettuce, fresh fruits and vegetables, raw or undercooked meats and seafood, and honey until your white blood count goes up. However, hot soups, canned fruits, molasses, processed cheeses, pasteurized products, yogurt, wrapped crackers, baked goods, and breads are fine. Once your counts have recovered, you may resume eating normally.

When Your Mouth Is Sore
A sore mouth may occur seven to ten days following certain chemotherapy treatments. A common remedy to prevent ulcers and alleviate mouth soreness is to mix one teaspoon of baking soda and one teaspoon of salt in a quart of tap water, rinse with solution, and spit after each meal. Avoid acidic or salty foods, such as citrus, tomatoes, crackers, and alcohol, and other foods that might irritate the mouth. Cut food into smaller pieces, avoid extremely hot or cold foods, and use a drinking straw for liquids. Soft foods to include are applesauce, bananas, cottage cheese, scrambled eggs, mashed veggies, and soups. And to avoid that metallic taste, try using plastic utensils.

If You Are Experiencing Diarrhea or Constipation
Diarrhea can follow certain chemotherapy or radiation treatments. If diarrhea starts, stop eating and avoid high fiber foods, stool softeners, and laxatives. Sports drinks, broth, and flat soda can help prevent dehydration. Once clear liquids are tolerated, you can progress to bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast. Gradually add crackers, plain pasta, white bread, and gelatin. Also, ginger may be settling to the stomach.

Constipation may be a problem any time during treatment, decreasing your appetite and making you feel bad. A higher fiber diet will benefit the entire family. Toss veggies into lasagnas, meat sauces, soups, or casseroles. Make sure each serving includes three grams of fiber. Eat oatmeal, popcorn, barley, and whole grain cereals. Include more fruits as well.

Caregivers play an important role in promoting a healthy diet. Family and friends can bring prepared meals in freezer-ready, disposable containers to cook when needed or offer to buy groceries to ensure the home has a well-stocked pantry and freezer. And remember, food is comfort, energy, and power!

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Holly Clegg is co-author with Gerald Miletello, MD, of the book Eating Well Through Cancer: Easy Recipes & Recommendations Before Treatment. For Holly’s recipes, visit

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2008.