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Eating Well During Cancer Treatment

By LLS Staff | March 24, 2017

Making healthy food choices before, during, and after cancer treatment can help you feel better and stay stronger. In fact, people living with cancer who eat well and keep or achieve a healthy weight usually manage treatment side effects better. Eating well also helps the body replace blood cells and healthy tissues that may be damaged as a result of treatment.

According to The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s (LLS) Information Resource Center team of master’s level oncology social workers, nurses and health educators, cancer research related to nutrition is still in its early stages, and it may be hard to find truthful and honest advice because of the myths and misinformation about this subject. To provide some clarity, we spoke with LLS’s Information Specialists who provided the following tips:

1. Choose Healthy Foods

Many nutritionists agree that eating a variety of foods is the best way to ensure intake of all the nutrients that the body requires. A healthy eating pattern includes a combination of food groups and a calorie intake level that maintains a healthy body weight. A healthy diet includes a balance of:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains and legumes
  • A variety of protein, including fish, lean meats and poultry
  • Fat-free or low-fat dairy, including milk, yogurt and cheese
  • Oils including olive oil and canola oil for cooking and salad dressings

2. Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle

In addition to eating well, it is important to:

  • Maintain or achieve a healthy weight
  • Drink enough fluid
  • Exercise. Consult your doctor first, and start with low-risk activities like short daily walks.
  • Manage stress
  • Get enough sleep (7 to 9 hours for adults)
  • Do not use tobacco or abuse drugs and limit or avoid alcohol.

3. Talk to Your Doctor About Foods to Avoid

Certain foods may cause a bad reaction with some of the therapies that are used to treat cancer. Members of your treatment team should tell you which foods to avoid.

When you begin a new treatment or start using a new drug, it is a good idea to tell your doctor about any food allergies you have and all vitamin and herbal supplements you are taking. You should also ask the following questions:

  • Will I have any special nutritional needs while taking this medication?
  • Do I need to take this medication with food or should I take it without food?
  • Are there any known foods that I shouldn’t eat during this treatment?

4. Try to Eat, Even If You Don't Have an Appetite

Your cancer and the treatment for it may increase your body’s need for calories and protein. Chemotherapy, certain other drug therapies and radiation therapy create a need for more calories and protein. The following nutrition tips can help you to get the most nutrition out of each bite of food when decreased appetite is a problem:

  • Eat small meals or snacks frequently throughout the day.
  • Keep prepared snacks or small meals on hand and be sure to take them with you when you will be away from home.
  • Try high calorie liquids such as juices, soups or shakes if eating solid foods is a problem.

5. Get Enough to Drink

Certain cancer therapies, including chemotherapy, other drug therapies and radiation therapy can increase risk for dehydration. Some side effects of treatment, such as diarrhea and vomiting, increase the need for more fluids.

Sipping even small amounts of liquids at regular intervals will help if that is all you can manage. Your treatment team may recommend liquids, such as broths or sports drinks—these can restore the body’s electrolyte balance. Electrolytes, such as sodium and potassium, have many important functions in the body. Vomiting and diarrhea increase your body’s loss of electrolytes. Check with your treatment team to see if you need extra help in keeping your body’s fluid in balance by drinking liquids that contain electrolytes.

To learn more, read LLS’s free publication, “Food and Nutrition Facts.” Patients and caregivers can also receive free one-on-one phone and e-mail consultations with an oncology dietitian by contacting LLS’s Information Specialists.

The Information Resource Center is a team of master's level oncology social workers, nurses and health educators, who assist patients through cancer treatment. To speak one-on-one with a LLS Information Specialist call (800) 955-4572 or go to