When you have cancer, a good diet plays a critical role in your survivor journey.
Your body needs energy to fight the disease. Chemotherapy, radiation and other treatments take a toll on your body, too. As a result, you may be losing weight – and in this case, that’s not a good thing.
“When you have tissue damage, whether it’s from the cancer or the treatment, your body wants to restore itself. If you’re not eating right, the body will start to use up its store of protein and calories to get what it needs,” said Patti Bomkamp, clinical dietitian for OSF HealthCare.
“You will chew up a lot of calories and proteins during treatment, so you need to maintain them.”
Fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and water
The best diet for you will depend on a number of factors. Those include the location of the cancer you’re fighting, your treatments and the side effects you experience.
But certain elements of a good diet are constant.
“Fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, fresh meat and plenty of water. You can’t go wrong with those, no matter what,” Patti said. “Eat foods that are as close as possible to the way God made them. Avoid processed foods. The less we mess with food, the better. The more junk in your food, the less nutrition.”
Maintain weight, manage symptoms
During cancer treatment, you should focus on maintaining your weight and managing your symptoms.
The side effects of your treatment can have an impact on that.
“I focus a lot on strategies and symptom management in my counseling and teaching during treatment,” Patti said.
Chemotherapy can make you nauseous and cause loss of, or change in, appetite – or even make foods taste different. Some foods you once loved might make you feel sick.
Radiation therapy, especially to the head, neck and center of the chest, can affect your ability to eat enough. It can cause pain and difficulty in chewing and swallowing solid foods.
“A lot of people like to drink fresh fruit smoothies. Things like that can be very appealing because they’re easy to swallow,” Patti said. “Eating smaller, more frequent meals is better than a big meal and can help your symptom management.
“Eat a little protein every time you eat, even if it’s something really small. Eggs are great because they’re inexpensive, versatile and fresh. I also suggest non-traditional protein, like nuts, seeds and peanut butter.”
A nutritious diet can still be tasty
Know and abide by your regular diet restrictions. If you have diabetes, stay mindful of your blood sugar. If you have heart issues, watch your sodium intake. And so on.
Always check the ingredients to make sure they don’t interfere with your treatment plan.
That said, a cancer diet doesn’t have to be bland and tasteless.
Needing ideas for healthy meals and snacks?
“You hear that sugar feeds cancer. Don’t buy into that,” Patti said. “If someone is feeling lousy with side effects and you say they can’t have anything with sugar, the availability of acceptable foods can get very small. You’re limiting the options to get vitamins, minerals and proteins. That won’t help you maintain your strength, energy and weight.”
“So, if someone loves a bowl of oatmeal, but not without brown sugar, then eat it with brown sugar. Don’t get hung up on making your food selection more difficult.”
Eating natural foods doesn’t have to be expensive.
“Eating organic foods is good, but they have a shorter shelf life and can be more expensive, even prohibitive in cost,” Patti said. “You can still eat fresh fruit and vegetables that are not organic.”
Small steps toward a big goal
Set small goals, and as you work toward them, you will move closer to achieving the big goal.
“We’re talking survivorship. Your goal is to complete treatment and go forward,” Patti said.
When you make positive changes to help with your treatment, you create opportunities to establish good habits for the future.
“When your appetite resumes, you’ll want that big T-bone or those cheese fries,” Patti said. “But those foods weren’t healthiest choices before your diagnosis or during your treatment. So they’re not suddenly healthy when your treatment is done. I like to advise people to pay attention to what they eat and remember every day as a gift.”