Eating well

fruit or vegetable

when you have cancer

Cancer and cancer treatment can affect the way your body uses food.

Although weight loss may not be preventable, there's a lot you can do at home to eat well. Good nutrition can help you reduce weight loss, fight infection, and handle common side effects.

Food and comfort

To many people, food is love, and your family Family mealand friends may want to spoil you with comfort foods. If you’re able to eat your favorite foods, enjoy!

But if you can't eat normally, let your loved ones know how to best support you. Have them help you shop and prepare foods you can eat, or just ask them to watch movies or listen to music with you.

Loss of appetite

Cancer therapies, mouth sores, and infections can lessen your appetite or make food taste bitter or metallic. What you can eat — and what you can't  — may change, so experiment to find what works for you.

Cleanse your palate with water, sugar-free lemon drops, gum, or mints.

Plate of foodSwitch to plastic utensils if food tastes metallic.

Eat smaller meals when you're hungry, instead eating at set times.

Eat breakfasts that have one-third of the calories and protein you need for the day.

Take a short walk before you eat. Gentle exercise may make you feel hungrier.

Boost flavors with spices, sauces, and citrus (if you don't have mouth sores).

Try zinc sulfate tablets if you're getting radiation to your head and neck. They may help your sense of taste come back faster.

Add calories

Some treatments increase your need for protein and calories to heal and fight infection.

  • Sip a high-calorie supplement, such as Ensure, Boost, or instant breakfast drinks, for protein and calories.
  • Choose good sources of protein, like lean meat, fish, poultry, eggs, cheese, cooked dry beans, peanut butter, and nuts and seeds. Add powdered skim milk to other foods (such as pudding or soups) to boost the protein.
  • Snack on high-calorie foods. Try cheese and crackers, muffins, puddings, milkshakes, yoghurt, ice cream, nuts, peanut butter, cream cheese on celery, deviled eggs, deviled ham on crackers, or chocolate.
  • Add condiments. Using butter, gravies, sauces, honey, or brown sugar can add calories to any meal.

Drink up

Woman blending a drinkYour body needs plenty of liquids to replace those lost if you vomit or have diarrhea, or to soothe a dry mouth or mouth sores. 

Drink water, fruit nectar, milk, soups, shakes, and smoothies. Use a straw if your mouth is sore.

Stay away from drinks that have alcohol or caffeine in them, such as sodas, coffee, and tea (both hot and cold).

Soothe your mouth

To help prevent infections, clean your teeth (including dentures) and rinse your mouth at least 4 times a day with an alcohol-free mouth rinse.

If your mouth is dry, try boosting the saliva in your mouth by eating very sweet or tart foods. Or moisten your food with broth, extra sauce, gravy, butter, or margarine. Soothe your mouth with hard candy, chewing gum, ice chips, or popsicles.

Rough, coarse, dry, spicy, salty, and acidic foods can irritate a tender mouth, so avoid raw vegetables, granola, toast, crackers, and citrus fruits and juices. Instead, choose soft foods that are easy to chew and swallow, such as:

  • oatmeal
  • cottage cheese
  • mashed potatoes
  • macaroni and cheese
  • custards, puddings, or gelatin
  • scrambled eggs
  • milkshakes
  • soft fruit and fruit nectars

Settle your stomach

Woman eatingSome people find that smaller meals, eating before cancer treatments, sticking to bland, dry foods (crackers, bread sticks, and toast), or soft, easy-to-digest foods can help with nausea. Others slowly sip fluids throughout the day, or suck on hard candies, like peppermints or lemon drops. Some find that sitting up for an hour after eating keeps them more comfortable.

Has the smell of food made you feel sick? For some people, spicy, greasy, or pungent foods trigger nausea. Food tends to smell stronger when it's hot because steam carries the smell. To reduce odors:

  • skip the strong spices
  • grill outside
  • order take out
  • eat cold or room-temperature foods
  • keep food covered until you're ready to eat it
  • use boiling bags, microwave steamer bags, or a kitchen fan while cooking

Stay safe

When you're receiving treatment, you've got a lot going on, but there are a few nutrition safety essentials you need to know about:

  • Practice safe food handling. Depending on your treatment, you may be at higher risk for getting infections like food poisoning. Wash your hands before you prepare or eat food. Don't eat raw or undercooked meat, fish, or eggs. Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Not sure if something is safe? Throw it out.
  • Some foods don't mix safely with certain anti-cancer drugs. Combining certain foods and drugs may decrease or change how well the drugs work or cause life-threatening side effects.
  • Talk to your doctor before trying any vitamin, mineral, or herbal supplements. Combining some herbal supplements with certain foods and drugs may change how well cancer treatment works or cause life-threatening side effects. Don't take more than 100% of the daily value (DV) for any vitamin or mineral unless your doctor tells you to.

Reviewed by Kaiser Permanente in 2018

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