What to Eat with Common Cancer Symptoms

By: Joyce Hendley, M.S.

Try these strategies to help you get the food you need during cancer treatment. These tips can help you optimize nutrition and minimize stress around eating when you're undergoing cancer treatment.

Spinach & Cheese Breakfast Skillet

Pictured Recipe: Spinach & Cheese Breakfast Skillet

Many people who undergo cancer treatment find that they face eating challenges. Foods may seem unappealing or not taste like they used to, and changes in energy levels can make it hard to eat at all on some days. But eating regular nutritious meals and snacks is more important than ever during treatment.

One thing to keep in mind is that every person is different—there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to eating when you have cancer. Allow yourself some grace as you figure out what your body needs. Someone with a more aggressive form of cancer, like metastatic breast cancer, or a more aggressive treatment plan will likely have different needs than someone with early stage cancer or someone undergoing a less aggressive treatment plan.

Here are some tips to help you overcome common eating challenges, to help your body get the nutrients it needs to heal and get stronger.

1. Include protein at every meal.

Raspberry Overnight Muesli

Pictured Recipe: Raspberry Overnight Muesli

Protein helps your body repair damaged cells, prevent infections and slow weight and muscle loss—all important for optimizing your treatment. For a little extra protein, sprinkle nuts, crumbled hard-boiled eggs or cheese onto casseroles or vegetables; boost sauces with dry milk or protein powder; add beans to soups and salads. Snack on nuts, yogurt, cheese, hard-boiled eggs and protein bars.

2. Fill up on fluids.

Herbal Chamomile Health Tonic

Pictured Recipe: Herbal Chamomile Health Tonic

Fever, vomiting or diarrhea can make you dehydrated. Keep a bottle of water handy and sip frequently. Decaf tea and coffee are also great choices, and fluid-rich foods like watermelon, tomatoes and soup all count too. Go easy on sugary drinks.

3. Stoke your appetite.

Chocolate-Peanut Butter Protein Shake

Pictured Recipe: Chocolate-Peanut Butter Protein Shake

If you don't feel much like eating, try to get some fresh air and physical activity, which may boost your hunger level. Take small portions, which won't seem so overwhelming. Try a smoothie or some soup if you don't feel like solid foods. Make the most of mornings, when appetite and energy levels are often highest.

Drink Up: Healthy Protein-Rich Smoothies

4. Experiment with different tastes.

Creamy Lemon Chicken Parmesan

Pictured Recipe: Creamy Lemon Chicken Parmesan

Radiation and chemotherapy can affect how food smells or tastes. Some people experience a metallic taste; others find that food tastes overly salty, sweet or bitter. Try new dishes, and play with spices. To lessen metallic taste, avoid canned foods, use plastic utensils and glass cookware and try adding a squeeze of lemon or a little vinegar. Tame bitter flavors with a bit of salt or sugar.

5. Seek out easy-to-swallow foods.

Spicy Butternut Squash Soup

Pictured Recipe: Spicy Butternut Squash Soup

Dry mouth and a sore throat are common side effects of chemo or radiation. Try soft foods like pasta, soups, stews, yogurt, fruits and well-cooked vegetables and purees; moisten foods with gravies and sauces. Your health care team can help you with other solutions like soothing mouth rinses and "thickeners" to add to foods so they're easier to get down.

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6. Eat for your specific digestive issues.

Cottage Cheese and Roasted Tomato Topped Potato

Pictured Recipe: Cottage Cheese and Roasted Tomato Topped Potato

You may deal with one or more of the following gastrointestinal issues during your treatment.

  • Nausea/vomiting: Your health care team can help you manage this with medication. Consider smaller, more frequent meals of foods easy on the stomach, like saltines, pretzels, rice or potatoes; try eating foods warm or cool, versus hot and cold.
  • Diarrhea: You might be prescribed low-fiber, easily digested foods like chicken-and-rice soup or cottage cheese, plus plenty of fluids. Yogurt can help replenish "good" bacteria in your digestive tract.
  • Constipation/abdominal pain: Boosting fiber intake with veggies and fruits (avoid those causing gas) can help, as can getting plenty of fluids and physical activity and starting your day with a hot beverage.

Watch: How to Make Creamy Carrot Soup

More Healthy Ideas:

6 Cancer-Fighting Foods to Add to Your Diet
10 Everyday Superfoods to Eat