Eating well with cancer

By: Ellie Foster, MPH
Program Manager, Learning Resource Center


When you’re facing a cancer diagnosis, the food on your plate might be the last thing on your mind.  But it’s important to make good nutritional choices during cancer treatment because eating right can help you feel better and stay stronger.  Here are some things to consider when you are trying to eat well during treatment.

You may need to eat differently than normal.

Cancer treatment can change how your body uses the nutrients from foods. It also can cause your body to need more calories than normal. This might mean breaking with “normal” healthy eating guidelines in order to keep you from losing weight. Here are some tips if you need to add more protein and calories to your diet:
  • Keep snacks on hand and eat them through the day. Make sure they are easy to access. Yogurt, cereal, cheese and crackers, a big bowl of soup, dried fruit and nuts, and chocolate milk are all good ways to add calories to your diet without needing much preparation.

  • Eat the food that your body wants to eat. This might mean eating soup and ice cream for breakfast and cereal for lunch. Don’t let the time of day dictate your menu.

  • Eat more meals throughout the day. Try breaking your meals into 5 smaller portions that you have more often. This can help make digestion easier.

  • Drink up! High calorie drinks like milk shakes can add in extra calories and protein to your day.

  • Top off foods you normally eat with high calorie additions. Add grated cheese to things like soups, noodles or meat. Use milk in place of water for things like soups. Use full fat dressings on salads or sandwiches. Make casseroles with heavy cream. Use cream cheese a dip for vegetables.

It may seem strange to eat chicken for breakfast or to load your food with things we normally consider unhealthy but just remember, your body needs the extra protein and calories. You can go back to your regular diet once treatment is over.

Different treatments for cancer can affect your eating.

You may have surgery as part of your cancer treatment.  If so, it’s important to give your body plenty of extra calories and protein to help your body heal.  Depending on the surgery, you also might need  to adjust your eating  while your body is healing. Your doctor will let you know if you will  to add or eliminate certain foods as a result of your surgery.
Here are some ideas for snacks to help you gain weight:
High Protein Milkshake

1 cup protein-fortified milk

2 tablespoons butterscotch sauce, chocolate sauce or your favorite fruit syrup

1/2 cup ice cream

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract


Put all ingredients in a blender and blend at low speeds for 10 seconds. 

 Peanut Butter Snack Spread


1 tablespoon nonfat instant dry milk

1 tablespoon honey

1 teaspoon water

5 tablespoons smooth peanut butter

1 teaspoon vanilla extract


Combine dry milk, water and vanilla and stir. Add honey and peanut butter and stir until blended. Spread on crackers or form into balls and chill. Keeps well in the fridge. 

There are a lot of different ways radiation can affect your eating. It all depends on what part of the body is getting treatment and the number of treatments you will be having. Radiation to your head and neck area can cause problems swallowing, changes to how things taste and sores in your mouth. Treatments to your belly area can cause an upset stomach, nausea/vomiting, diarrhea and cramps.Let your doctor know if you are feeling any of these side effects. They may have suggestions for specific diets that can help.
Check out this recipe to help with a sore mouth:

Fruit and Cream


I cup whole milk

1 cup vanilla ice cream or frozen yogurt

1 cup canned fruit

Almond or vanilla extract to taste 


Blend in a blender and chill well before serving. 


Chemotherapy can kill cancer cells but they can also hurt healthy, normal cells. Getting enough protein and calories will help you heal faster.  Chemotherapy can cause side effects like appetite loss, nausea, constipation and vomiting.

If you are feeling constipated, try this recipe:

 Apple/Prune Sauce


1/3 cup unprocessed bran

1/3 cup applesauce

1/3 cup mashed stewed prunes


Blend all ingredients and store in the fridge. Take 1-2 tablespoons of this mixture before bedtime, then drink 8 ounces of water. You need to drink the water or else this recipe won't help to relieve constipation. 

Food safety is important.

Cancer treatment can take a toll on your body. Your immune system might be weakened which makes it hard to fight off infections. This makes it even more important to make sure you are handling and preparing foods safely. Here are some tips:

  • Wash your hands with soap and warm water before and after preparing food. Make sure you wash for at least 20 seconds!

  • Use defrosted foods as soon as you can. Do not refreeze them.

  • Wash any fruits and veggies you will eat. Try using a vegetable scrubber to get them extra clean. Don’t forget that packed salad mixes need to be rinsed too!

  • Put any foods that need to be kept in the fridge away within two hours of buying them or preparing them. Anything with eggs, cream cheese or mayonnaise should not be left out for more than an hour.  

  • Make sure your fridge is set at 40 Fahrenheit or below.

  • Invest in a meat thermometer. It’s the best way to know if your food is cooked.  Find out what the safe cooking temperature is for your favorite meat here.

  • Use 1 cutting board for fresh produce and a different one for raw meats.

An oncology dietitian can help.

Working with a dietitian who knows the ins and outs of cancer care can help you prepare for treatment and manage side effects and symptoms.  “Meeting with a dietitian will help you with your eating plan to support your health and wellbeing” says Karen Schilling, Oncology Dietitian at the Maine Medical Center Cancer Institute. So how do you access a dietitian like Karen?  “I’m available to anyone in the MaineHealth system with a cancer diagnosis.  Ask your doctor or care team about the possibility of adding a dietitian to your treatment team.”

Cancer may change a lot of things about your life, including what you eat. Knowing what to expect and what resources are available to you can help make this uncertain time a little easier.





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