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Healthy Nutrition for Cancer Patients

Updated on March 10, 2010

Cancer and Nutrition

Working as an oncology nurse, I saw first hand the direct effects of cancer on a patient's nutritional status. Cancer increases the metabolism of carbohydrates, fat, protein, sugar, vitamins, and electrolytes. Many patients have already had a noticeable weight loss before they are even diagnosed with cancer. At times, they will have been on a diet and initially attribute the weight loss to dieting.

It has also been reported that poor nutrition can play a part in the development of some cancers. People who eat diets high in red meat and fat, and not enough fruits and vegetables have a increased risk of developing certain cancers.  According to Andrew Weil M.D., eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily could cut cancer risk by 20%.

Family dinners may be difficult for the patient who has cancer.
Family dinners may be difficult for the patient who has cancer.

Supersized Nutrition

Cancer tears the body down, and wipes out caloric reserves. At the cancer center where I worked, we would tell our new patients, that "this is not the time to be on a weight loss diet." If a patient starts at 175 lbs., the goal is to stay at 175 lbs. during treatment. Cancer causes faulty DNA replication within the cells. A person fighting cancer needs increased protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. They may need to increase their caloric intake to counteract the increased metabolism from the cancer.

  • Proteins take part in almost every process within cell division. They help to maintain the structure of the cells. Protein can be found in meat, dairy, eggs, and nuts.
  • Carbohydrates give the body energy, and are often starchy. Cereals, bread, pasta, potatoes, sugars contain carbohydrates.
  • Vitamins are nutrients that have many functions within the body. Some help with cell division, some are antioxidents, some help enzymes to function properly. Some vitamins that are inportant in fighting cancer are:
  1. Vitamin A: regulates cell and tissue growth. Vitamin A includes retinol and carotenoids. Vitamin A can be found in red, yellow, and orange fruits and vegetables.
  2. Vitamin C: helps with the formation of collagen. Citrus fruits contain Vitamin c. Some people feel that Vitamin C helps protect against stomach, esophageal, and mouth cancers.
  3. Vitamin E: is found in wheat germ oil, and liver. It is thought to cut the risk of getting colon cancer.
  • Resvertrol is a substance that can be found in grapes. It is thought to help inhibit cancer growth by helping to prevent DNA damage in the cells.
  • Catechins Green tea, which has become very popular contains catechins. Catechins are antioxidants that may inhibit tumors.
  • Soy is found in Tofu, and may popular vegetarian foods. There is also soy milk, and soy cheese, which is widely available. Some reasearchers have found that it may stunt the growth of some breast cancer cells.
  • Lycopene  is part of the carotene group.  It is found in tomatoes.  Usually raw foods contain more nutrients, but cooked tomatoes are actually higher in lyopene.
  • Selenium   a mineral that is thought to help lower risks of lung, colerectal, and prostate cancer.

Vitamins are usually better when obtained from natural foods, than from pills. A cancer patient should always check with his or her doctor before taking any extra vitamins or supplement pills.

It is also always important for patients to read all the information given to them about their particular Chemotherapy regimen.  Often raw foods have to be avoided to help control infection risks.   Some chemotherapy drugs have side effects when cold foods are eaten.

American Cancer Society Video

Maintaining a Healthy Diet During Chemotherapy

It is great to talk about the extra calories and nutrition that are needed to fight cancer, but many cancer patients soon say "I just can't eat,"  Chemotherapy treatments inevitably cause many side effects.  The number one side effect of Chemotherapy is fatigue.  Nausea and loss of appetite often follow.  it is very hard for a cancer patient to eat extra calories when they are wiped out, nauseated, and just don't feel like eating.  Here are some tips that may help.

  • Eat frequent small meals.  Six small meals, rather than three big ones.
  • Eat healthy foods, fruits and vegetables, nuts, crackers with cheese or peanut butter.
  • Open windows, if the weather is nice, to cut down on food odors.  It is said, that is is often the odor from the food that makes patients feel sick.
  • Drink and eat separately.  Instead of drinking with the meal, it is better to finish eating the meal without drinking a lot, then drink something nurishing later as a snack
  •  Meal replacement beverages make healthy between meal snacks, and can help make up for calories missed when unable to eat much at a meal.
  • Drink home made milk shakes or smoothies as snacks.
  • Take nausea medication as directed to prevent nausea before eating.


  1. Wikipedia online enclyclopedia - vitamins, cancer.
  2. Prevention natural healing. Published by Rodale press. 2000.
  3. DrWeil. com.
  4. Mayo
  5., cancer.
  6. National Cancer Institute, cancer topics


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    • susansisk profile imageAUTHOR

      Susan Sisk 

      7 years ago from Georgia, USA

      Thank you. Food is often a huge challenge for patients and their families.

    • thefoodpharmacy profile image


      7 years ago from Central Jersey

      Great advice! So interesting!

    • katrinasui profile image


      8 years ago

      Very well researched and very well presented. Very informative hub!

    • susansisk profile imageAUTHOR

      Susan Sisk 

      9 years ago from Georgia, USA

      Thanks 4 reading, FrugallyHealthy. Glad that your dad has done well.

    • FrugallyHealthy profile image


      9 years ago from Brunswick, GA

      I remember when my dad was going through radiation and couldn't eat anything at all without getting sick. Cancer is so hard on the individual as well as the whole family. Very useful hub.

      Bob, I hope you are doing well!

    • susansisk profile imageAUTHOR

      Susan Sisk 

      9 years ago from Georgia, USA

      Hope you are doing good now. I think a lot of people have to use shakes. A patient's wife that I knew, would make dinner, then just put her husband's share in the blender to make a soup. He said he liked it.

    • rwelton profile image


      9 years ago from Sacramento CA

      Thanks for the post. During and after radiation and chemo treatments - I lived on high protein and caloric shakes. I could not eat solid food and even added olive oil to my shakes to ad calories.



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