Nutrition During Cancer Treatment

People who are undergoing treatment for cancer often have a number of questions regarding the kind of diet or nutrition that they should take and how it will affect their health and treatment. The concerns regarding nutrition and diet also come from the fact that a number of cancer treatment therapies have side effects and complications that can manifest in different ways.

Horn of Plenty

Nutritional problems are a common finding in cancer patients who are undergoing treatment. Some of the most common problems associated with diet include dry mouth, loss of appetite, change in smell or taste, diarrhea, change and fluctuations in weight, sore throat and mouth, nausea, vomiting and constipation.

Importance of good nutrition during treatment:

It is a great challenge to make sure that the patient suffering from cancer stays well nourished and has a complete balance of all nutritional elements and electrolytes in the body at all times. It must be emphasized, however, that it is critical for cancer patients to maintain an ideal, healthy weight during treatment because there are a number of factors that depend upon the health of the patient[1]. One of the greatest factors is that patients who are healthy and consume a balanced diet have the potential to tolerate more aggressive cancer therapies than those who have compromised health. This means that malnourished patients may have unpleasant outcomes of the treatment therapies used for curing cancer and may not be able to tolerate some of the treatments and medications.

A balanced and nutritious diet can help patients by preventing the breakdown of healthy tissues of the body, and in the rebuilding of damaged tissues which have been affected by cancer. Another benefit of the intake of a nutritious and balanced diet is the fact that it enhances and improves the stamina of the patient – thus contributing towards a better quality of life during and after treatment.

Complications of treatment:

Cancer treatment has many undesired side effects such as nausea, vomiting and weight loss. Good nutrition is beneficial because a person who is malnourished will find it harder to fight the disease compared to a person who is well nourished and thus stronger. Cancer patients find it very hard to be able to eat well while undergoing chemotherapy (which has many undesirable side effects that may cause a change in taste, nausea and loss of appetite).

It is important to note that the diet plans and nutritional guidelines that are given to patients who are suffering from cancer and undergoing therapy are different from the ones that are generally given to other people. These specialized nutritional guidelines emphasize on the prevention of weight loss, the maintenance of an ideal, healthy weight and the building up of strength to tolerate the treatments.

During treatment, if the patient begins to lose weight, they are put on a diet which includes a high content of fat, protein and calories. In other cases, for the prevention of diarrhea as an added complication of the treatment, patients are advised to exclude high fiber food from their diet. Patients who have a history of mouth sores or ulcers are given food which is cool, smooth and soft in nature and is also devoid of high acidity content.

Chemotherapy and transplant:

Cancer patients who are undergoing chemotherapy must be extra careful because they must at all costs prevent illnesses which are caused by the consumption of infected or contaminated food. This is because chemotherapy compromises and weakens the immune system of the body, thus making it prone to different infections and lowering the body’s ability to fight foreign infections.

It is for this reason that people who have undergone a bone marrow or stem cell transplantation are said to be extra vulnerable and must follow highly strict guidelines in terms of diet and nutrition. Certain types of cancers affect people by bringing about a significant decrease in weight. These are the cancers that generally involve structures which are involved in the consumption and digestion of food including neck, head, pancreas and esophagus.

There are professional registered dietitians who specialize in the field of oncology, and can give proper advice to people who are suffering from cancers that compromise the health and appetite of patients. In case the patients are suffering from low nutritional count, lack of essential nutrients and electrolytes in the body, they may be given prescribed supplements and nutritional drinks in order to restore the balance in the body.

Artificial feeding:

Due to some unavoidable conditions, some cancer patients may require nutrition administered with the help of tubes inserted directly into the stomach or intestines.

There is also a social aspect to all the problems related to diet and nutrition faced by most cancer patients. This is because a majority of the gatherings and celebrations that take place around the world are generally centered around food and drinks. Many cancer patients tend to avoid these gatherings solely for this reason and may begin to feel lonely or left out. There are a number of professionals who can help cancer patients cope with these social and personal difficulties effectively.

Additional Resources:

Bloch, Abby S. 2004. Eating Well, Staying Well during and after Cancer. At lanta: American Cancer Society.

A comprehensive book written by a highly credentialed nutrition expert and providing detailed information on diet and cancer. The sections discussing the evidence regarding foods and dietary supplements that have been promoted as fighting cancer or improving the immune system are especially interesting. The author also provides sound advice about coping with nutrition-related side effects and ensuring food quality and safety, meal plans, and recipes.


Mathai, Kimberly, and Ginny Smith. 2004. The Cancer Lifeline Cookbook: Good Nutrition, Recipes, and Resources to Optimize the Lives of People Living with Cancer. Seattle, WA: Sasquatch Books.

A registered dietitian and a food writer offer nutritional advice and recipes for people during and after treatment. This book provides descriptions of key components of good nutrition and practical suggestions for reducing side effects and incorporating healthy foods.


Crocker, Betty. 2002. Betty Crocker’s Living with Cancer Cookbook. New York: Hungry Minds.

This is a beautifully designed cookbook with attractive color photographs accompanying-130 recipes. The introduction and special features add to the reader’s understanding of how to eat well and relieve side effects during cancer treatment. Recipes are color-coded to show which ones are the most helpful for improving nausea, mouth sores, diarrhea, and constipation. The introduction provides a good overview of nutrition principles to maintain during treatment, and each recipe includes a nutritional analysis. Notes embedded in the text offer advice and tips from an oncologist and survivors.


Dyer, Diana. 2002. A Dietitian’s Cancer Story: Information and Inspiration for Recovery and Healing from a 3-Time Cancer Survivor. Ann Arbor, MI:  Swan Press.

This book was authored by a registered dietitian who is also a cancer survivor. Its strength is in the specific, detailed advice and suggestions about topics such as selecting dishes in restaurants, avoiding hidden fats, travel tips, and managing fatigue. Recipes are included, and the author explains how to evaluate alternative and complementary nutritional therapies,
herbs, and supplements. The nutrition principles are suitable for cancer survivors during and after treatment.


Liu, Simin, et al. 2006. Healing Gourmet, Eat to Fight Cancer. New York: McGraw-Hill.

The authors – a physician, a dietitian and a chef – explain how to eat a balanced diet high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and low in saturated fat. This book discusses specific food groups and nutrients that may play a role in cancer, such as fats, carbohydrates, antioxidants, and phytochemicals. Practical tips and advice about coping with side effects, meal
plans, and 50 recipes also are included.



This article was originally published on 7/12/2014 and last revision and update of it was 9/14/2015.