Maintaining Proper Nutrition before, during, and after undergoing Cancer Treatment

By Malla Reddy Narayana on 15 Jul, 2022

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With the onset of modern lifestyle, there has been a sharp increase in our exposure to a variety of harmful physical and chemical agents, environmental pollutants, and radiation. High-stress lifestyles, tobacco usage, unhealthy diet, and obesity all put us at risk. Cancer rates across the world are at an all-time high. But there is hope beyond cancer and we must do everything in our capacity to minimise the damage it may cause. Cancer takes a heavy toll on our bodies, resulting in weakness and loss of overall health. Hence it is important to maintain a good lifestyle with emphasis on proper nutrition to make sure these effects can be counteracted or minimised as much as possible.

Pre-treatment Nutrition

One of the ways to ensure good intake and prevent a lack of nutrients preemptively is to consult a dietician. A dietician can contribute in the following ways:

1. check and build a profile based on the existing condition of nutrient levels

2. Suggest suitable additions to the diet based on deficiencies

3. Suggest dietary supplements

4. Prepare a diet chart including the right portions and frequency of meals

Nutrition during treatment 

Some of the symptoms observed during treatment include loss of appetite, change in taste, mouth sores, dehydration, nausea, and diarrhoea. This makes ensuring proper levels of nutrition and hydration even harder and requires planned and targeted efforts to ensure the intake of appropriate amounts of nutrients and fluids.

Some of the ways in which this can be achieved are – 

i) Supplement fluid intake: Cancer patients are prone to dehydration while they are undergoing treatment due to excessive urination, diarrhoea, and vomiting. In severe cases, there is a need for IV hydration to make up for the loss of fluids. Because patients undergoing cancer treatment often have an altered sense of taste, it becomes difficult for them to stay well hydrated. 

Luckily, the only source of hydration does not have to be water. There are a range of ways available to supplement water intake.

ii) Eating food with high water content: Soups and other gravy-like dishes contain certain quantities of water. Apart from these, fruits and vegetables like watermelon, water chestnuts, etc also have high water content.

iii) Flavouring drinking water: Water can be given a slight flavour to make it more pleasant in taste through the addition of small amounts of fruit juices. This helps in water ingestion despite the lack of taste or flavour. 

iv) Adding more beverages to your diet: Drinking tea, buttermilk, milk or milk substitutes can significantly increase your fluid consumption without being bland or difficult to drink for patients. Sports drinks are also a good addition to the daily diet. However, if you are trying to avoid sugar, there are a variety of sugar-free sports drink options available in the market.

v) Smaller portions: Having 5-6 smaller meals instead of 3 large meals a day can help as long as the individual meals add up to the required overall calorie intake.

vi) Substitute things that are not appealing: Sometimes the change of taste can make it difficult to eat meat. Since protein intake is crucial, meat can be replaced with food items like tofu, cheese, eggs, smoothies, and protein shakes.

vii) Texture: Since mouth sores are a common occurrence for patients undergoing cancer treatment, normal food can be difficult to chew and ingest because of the painful burning sensations. Food with smoother textures can be achieved by using a blender. Adding healthy fats like butter, mild sauces, or cream can help achieve this smooth consistency and also soothe the sores.

viii) Counter persistent metallic taste: This is a regular complaint of a lot of patients receiving cancer treatment and affects overall appetite. To counter this one can chew gum, and have citrus fruits, for cleansing the palette. Brushing before a meal to refresh your palette has also helped in some cases.

Although there is no diet recommended by ASCO at the moment, these tips have helped patients achieve proper nutrition.

Ensuring quality of food 

During cancer treatment, the patient’s immune system is weaker than normal and thus the body becomes prone to infections and diseases. Ensuring proper hygiene and quality of food taken while undergoing cancer chemo treatment thus becomes of utmost importance. Here is a checklist to help you achieve it:

i) Use separate utensils: Keeping the dishes, chopping boards, and other kitchen apparatus isolated from the ones used by the rest of the family. This can help prevent repeated contamination.

ii) Handle raw meat and poultry carefully: Raw meat can carry harmful pathogens like Salmonella. Washing hands immediately after handling meat or eggs can prevent the contraction of such infections.

iii) Avoid uncooked and unpasteurized food: During cooking, heat kills a lot of harmful disease-carrying pathogens. Undercooked or unpasteurized food might be safely consumed by most people, but since the body is at higher risk during cancer treatment this type of food should be totally avoided.

Nutrition post- treatment

In the post-treatment phase, the body is still recovering and needs a proper diet and plenty of rest. Too much rest should be avoided as this causes muscular atrophy and even though you may not gain weight, you may lose muscle mass. In this phase, constant monitoring of body weight should be maintained. Smoking should be permanently stopped and alcohol consumption limited.  A heavily plant-based diet and a combination of rehabilitation programs can help slowly journey towards normalcy. These are a few ways to regulate nutrition for cancer patients that can help boost recovery.



1. What is the best food for cancer patients on chemotherapy?

Protein rich food, fruits and vegetables with high  water content and a portion of healthy fats are recommended during chemotherapy.

2. What are some  foods to avoid while on chemotherapy?

   Food having a rough texture or edges and overly spicy food should be avoided as these can aggravate the mouth sores and cause pain. 

3) What is an ideal diet for breast cancer patients?

Food items such as spices with anti-inflammatory properties, whole grains, low fat dairy products and legumes usually help.

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