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Diet after Cancer: How to Nourish Your Body as a Cancer Survivor

Recovering from an illness can give you a new perspective for your health and well-being. After your cancer diagnosis and completing treatment, you might be considering how to take steps to be your healthiest cancer-free self.

Being mindful about what you eat is part of supporting your health after cancer. As a result, you may be considering making some changes to your diet. You might have questions about how your dietary needs have changed as a cancer survivor. You might also be navigating dietary restrictions, symptoms, and changes to your body due to medications or treatment.

Searching for guidance and answers to your concerns can feel overwhelming. In this article, we’ll answer those questions and offer information to help you support your health through what you eat.

Common Dietary Concerns for Cancer Survivors

Between your medications, treatments, and the way that cancer has changed your body, you may have new needs when it comes to your diet. Different cancers can have different effects, but there are a handful of concerns that many former patients encounter.

Cancer Medications and Food Interactions

You may be taking medications that have negative interactions with foods or supplements. It’s important to check with your health care provider to see if any of these restrictions apply to you. Below are some common interactions between cancer medications and foods:

  • Fluorouracil or Palbociclib and green tea

  • Erlotinib or Lapatinib and green tea extract

  • Imatinib or Etoposide and grapefruit

  • Saint John's Wort is a supplement that interacts with many medications, such as Irinotecan, Methotrexate, Docetaxil, and Ixabepilone

  • Imatinib and vitamins A, E, D3, and C

Cancer and Medication Side Effects

Cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiation can come with side effects that interfere with how you eat. Depending on the form of cancer and the treatments you received, you may be experiencing:

  • Changes in appetite, either increased or decreased

  • Weight gain or loss

  • Change in taste or smell

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Digestive issues like diarrhea, constipation, or indigestion

  • Sores, pain, or swelling in your mouth

  • Trouble swallowing

  • Dry mouth

  • Sensitivity to hot or cold foods

  • Loss of sensation in your throat or mouth

Include Supplements When Necessary

You may have pre-existing dietary restrictions (like vegetarianism or food allergies), so you may already supplement your diet with additional vitamins and minerals. However, as a cancer survivor, you may have new nutrition deficiencies. For example, chemotherapy can lead to deficiencies in B and K vitamins, as well as folic acid and thymine.

It’s a good idea to check with your doctor to make sure you're not at risk of deficiencies. If you are, you may be provided with a specific diet or supplement plan to counteract them. If you are not, the American Cancer Society recommends following the Cancer Prevention dietary guidelines. 

Dietary Recommendations for Cancer Survivors

Your nutrition needs may depend on factors like what type of cancer you had and where you are in your cancer-free journey. You may also have individual needs outside of your cancer history that impact your diet and nutrient needs, such as diabetes or gluten intolerance.

If you do have additional needs, you may want to work with a registered dietitian. A dietitian is a licensed nutrition professional. They can also help you if you're having a hard time making changes to your diet. We will provide content and resources about dietitians later in this article.

Here are some general guidelines that can help you maintain or improve your overall health and well-being after cancer:

Eat a Balanced Diet - Consider the Mediterranean Diet

Include foods from all food groups in your diet. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats are all important for ensuring your body has the nutrients it needs. The Mediterranean Diet has been shown to reduce your risk of cancer. It prioritizes lots of fruits and vegetables; fish, chicken, eggs and milk products in moderate portion sizes; and a minimal amount of red meat and processed foods. It also includes high-fiber whole grains and healthy fats. 

Add Healthy Fats and Choose Low-Fat Dairy

Healthy fats that are high in omega-3 fatty acids can help with tissue repair, which is important for recovering from the damage that cancer cells may have caused. High omega-3 foods include cold water fatty fish, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and canola and olive oils. If you eat dairy, stick to low-fat milk and dairy products. Choosing low-fat dairy can lower your risk of having lung cancer in particular.

Include a Variety of Fruits and Vegetables

To ensure you're getting a variety of nutrients, dietary experts recommend "eating the rainbow". Lots of these foods are high in antioxidants, which are substances that help prevent cancer, slow the growth of cancer cells, and quicken your recovery. Here's a guide to fruit and vegetable colors and the ways they help your body:

  • Red - these foods contain lycopene, which protects against prostate cancer and colorectal cancer. Examples: strawberries, tomatoes, beets, red peppers, red onions

  • Orange and yellow - these foods have beta cryotothanxin, which helps your cells communicate with each other. In other words, it ensures that the cells of your body function smoothly. Breakdowns in cellular communication can lead to uncontrolled cell growth, which may cause cancer. Examples: pumpkin, carrots, pineapple, mango, corn

  • Green - these foods contain sulforaphane, isothiocyanates, and indoles, which block carcinogens from acting on your body. Examples: kiwi, brussels sprouts, avocados, green tea, kale

  • Blue and purple - these foods have anthocyanins, which slow the aging of your cells. When cells age but do not die off, they can release inflammatory compounds that can lead to cancer. Examples: blackberries, eggplant, figs, red cabbage, purple carrots, red potatoes

  • White and brown - these foods are rich in quercetin and kaempferol, which block 

    tumor cell growth. Examples: cauliflower, mushrooms, apples, fennel, white onions

Opt for Whole Grains

Aside from providing you with carbohydrates (also known as carbs) for energy, whole grains contain lots of important nutrients. The bran, or the outer layer of a whole grain, contains B vitamins, iron, copper, zinc, magnesium, antioxidants, and phytochemicals. Phytochemicals may help prevent disease, including cancer

The fiber from whole grains helps you stay full after meals. This makes it easier to maintain a healthy weight, especially if you experience increased appetite or cravings due to your medications or treatment. Women should aim for 21-25 grams of fiber while men should aim for 30-38 grams per day. If you're sensitive or intolerant to wheat or gluten, there are plenty of gluten-free whole grains you can choose instead. Some options include quinoa, buckwheat, oats, brown rice, and corn.

Reduce Red and Processed Meats

Red meats like beef, lamb, and pork can increase the risk of certain types of cancer, such as gastrointestinal and colorectal cancer. Processed meats like hot dogs, bacon, and lunch meats are known carcinogens, or cancer-causing compounds. It’s best to reduce these if you currently eat them. Processed meats are also high in sodium, which may be a concern if you are at risk of heart disease or have high blood pressure. Limiting their amount in your diet can protect your health. 

Choose Lean Proteins

Protein helps your body function normally and aids in tissue repair. This means that including good sources of protein in your diet will help you recover more quickly after injury and disease. Choices like poultry (chicken or turkey), legumes (like edamame, beans, and lentils), and fish are all good sources of lean protein.

Limit Highly Processed Foods and Added Sugar

A diet high in sugary foods and beverages can lead to problems like obesity, insulin resistance, and cancer recurrence. Nutrition labels may try to hide added sugars under other names. Ingredients like honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar, corn syrup, and dextrose are all forms of added sugar. The American Heart Association recommends that men should stick to no more than 35 grams (150 calories) daily and women should have no more than 25 grams (100 calories) daily. 

Here are some other processed foods to limit:

  • snack cakes

  • candy

  • American cheese

  • cereals

  • potato chips

  • frozen dinners

  • fast food meals

Limit Alcohol

Alcohol, including wine, may cause certain types of cancer. Alcohol is a problem because your body breaks alcohol down into acetaldehyde. This compound damages your DNA and interferes with your body's ability to repair itself. This can result in the growth of cancer tumors. If you don't drink, don't start. If you do, less is better. Stick to 1 drink per day for women and 2 per day for men. 

Help with Taste Changing

Cancer treatment or cancer itself can change the way food tastes. You may also have a harder time eating or drinking due to your appetite or physical changes. Below are some common taste issues for cancer survivors and some strategies to handle them.

Problem: Water tastes badSolution: Flavor your water with fruit juices or choose sports drinks for hydration. However, be careful about how much sugar you drink, as high amounts of added sugar can negatively affect your health. You can also get extra water from the foods you eat. Choose options like fruits, smoothies, or soup.

Problem: Food has no taste

Solution: Add spices and seasonings. This could be a good opportunity to experiment and try some new flavors. If you have mouth sores, avoid high-acidity or spicy foods like lemon and hot sauce.

Problem: You have no appetiteSolution: Instead of having three large meals, try having five or six smaller meals or snacks throughout the day. Include some foods that you enjoy and are easy to eat.

Problem: Meat tastes rottenSolution: Try getting your protein from other sources. Non-meat sources of protein can include eggs, beans, peas, nuts, tofu, or protein powder (although it’s best to get your protein from whole foods instead of supplements).

Problem: You have a metallic taste in your mouth

Solution: Try using plastic utensils and cooking with nonmetal pots and pans. Chew gum or eat citrus fruits.

Problem: You have mouth soresSolution: Stick to smooth foods like smoothies and soup. Add fats like avocado, olive oil, or yogurt to your food for a smoother texture. You can use a blender to soften vegetables after cooking them. Drink a lot of water and be sure to prioritize dental hygiene to minimize bacteria growth.

More Tips for a Healthy Cancer-Free Lifestyle

Maintain a Healthy Weight

Weight management can help reduce your risk of cancer recurrence and can improve your overall health. If you are overweight or obese, losing 5-10% of your body weight can have a protective effect. While weight loss may be your goal, unexpected changes in body weight can be a sign of underlying health problems. It’s important to speak with your doctor if you notice any big changes.

Stay Hydrated

Water helps your body function properly, but you might need extra fluids due to potential side effects of your cancer treatment. Common side effects can include dry mouth, mouth sores, sore throat, and constipation. These symptoms are all improved with increased water intake. Getting lots of fluids is also important for those who have low blood pressure as a result of cancer or cancer treatment. Additionally, low water intake has been linked to an increased risk of colon and breast cancer.

To improve your hydration, choose water more often than sugary or caffeinated beverages. You can also supplement your water intake by including foods with a high water content, like celery, oranges, tomatoes, and pineapple. It's recommended to aim for 3.7 liters for men and 2.7 liters for women, but your needs may vary based on where you live, how active you are, and your general health. 

Manage Digestive Symptoms

Gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms are the most common chronic side effect of cancer treatment. They have the greatest negative impact on the quality of life for cancer survivors. As with all of your symptoms and side effects, you should let your doctor know if you're experiencing digestive symptoms. You may be prescribed medication or given a specific diet plan to help reduce your symptoms. Pay attention to any patterns between your diet and your digestive symptoms by logging them in a food diary. This can give you a sense of what foods trigger your symptoms and will provide your doctor with more insight into your needs.

Get Active

It's likely that you already know that getting more exercise can help improve your health, but you may not know that it can lower your risk of many cancers. Exercise is especially important if you experienced muscle loss during your cancer treatment. Recovering your muscle strength through exercise can greatly improve your quality of life after cancer. Try to get 130-300 minutes of moderate intensity or 75-150 minutes of vigorous activity a week. You can work your way up to this amount over time. Find a form of exercise that is enjoyable for you and fits into your lifestyle.

Get Support From A Dietitian

Work with a dietitian

If you have complicated dietary needs or struggle with making changes to your habits, it's best to seek professional help in addition to your doctor. A dietitian is a highly trained and licensed nutrition professional who can accommodate your needs and preferences. They will give you advice for your needs, provide you with a personalized nutrition plan, and help you stick to it. Some dietitians specialize in cancer diets, so look for someone who has this experience. You can use the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ website to find a dietitian who can help you create a plan for your nutrition. Be sure to select “Cancer-Oncology Nutrition” as a specialty.

Related Articles: Life After Cancer, Sleep After Cancer, Stress After Cancer, Depression After Cancer

Goodpath Can Help

Goodpath's cancer survivorship program takes an integrative, whole-person approach to your cancer recovery.

Our programs are tailored to you based on your unique needs and include care for the physical, social, and mental challenges you face as a cancer survivor. This includes dietary advice and healthy eating resources, based on the Mediterranean Diet.

And, you won't do it alone - you'll be paired with a dedicated health coach for extra support along the way. Our health coaches coordinate your care with a specialized health care team, including doctors, dietitians, and pharmacists.