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Eating well is not rocket science, although some books would have you believe this. At its most basic level, a good diet means eating a variety of nutritious foods on a daily basis. You don’t even need so-called superfoods or special diets to eat well and feel healthier. Pomegranates, goji berries and white tea are really good for us, but so are broccoli, carrots and apples. 

When looking at what to eat, either as a long-term plan or on a day-to-day basis, pleasure is important. Sometimes people find they crave comfort food or foods that they enjoyed as a child. Going through treatment for cancer is stressful enough without denying yourself foods that help get you through stressful times.  Don’t feel guilty about these feelings or cravings. A healthy diet has room for most things that we love. 

A healthy diet is important for everyone, but especially so if you have cancer. Yet food is never a matter of ‘one-size-fits-all’. Quite apart from your personal likes and dislikes, your own needs will probably change as you go from treatment to recovery, and beyond. If you are feeling unwell during treatment eat what you feel like eating. You need to eat in a way that is appropriate to your needs. 

Choose nutrient-packed food- foods that give you energy, build you up and provide vitamins and minerals –  but according to what you can manage. If you feel like having a plate of steamed leafy green vegetables and grilled fish, great. If you can only manage a smoothie, carton of Ensure or a pureed vegetable soup that’s fine, too.  You may even find that you want to eat breakfast foods at dinner time, or lunch foods at breakfast: don’t be bound by tradition. Listen to your body and eat what appeals, whenever it appeals. However, even if you don’t feel like eating it is important to try and eat little and often – high-calorie, higher-protein – for energy, strength and to help you cope with treatment. 

Overall, the key to a good diet is variety and balance. Food helps our health in many ways and it is important to get a good range to maximise this.

Getting the best quality ingredients (not necessarily organic) that you can afford is also important, whether ‘raw’ ingredients or pre-prepared foods. Low-quality pre-prepared foods are often highly processed, contain unnecessary additives and lack real nutrition. They may be high in so-called ‘empty calories’, giving you some energy but none of the body-building qualities and healthy vitamins and minerals that are plentiful in good, fresh foods. A good rule to remember is ‘the closer a food is to the way nature intended the better it is for you’. If you use pre-prepared foods during treatment, eat what you fancy but perhaps look at a few packet labels and choose the one with the most ‘real’ ingredients and that are not high in salt, fat and sugar. 

A healthy diet is also one of inclusion rather than exclusion. Many people find it helpful and reassuring to know that it’s really about what you eat more of rather than just what you cut out. During treatment, think about adding in more fruit and vegetables, be they cooked, raw (peeled/unpeeled) or juiced – depending on your digestion and energy needs. Many people find the benefits of eating a wide variety of more natural foods can make you feel less like giving shelf space to crisps, cakes, packaged meals and the like. 

If you like to cook from scratch, often just tweaking the cooking method and a few ingredients does the trick. Even switching from deep fried chips/french fries to 5% fat oven chips makes a difference. Think positively about food and trying new foods and healthy cooking methods. 

The key words to remember when planning your meals are:

Appropriate to Your Needs


In 2009, the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) produced guidelines for cancer prevention based on the interpretations of well-conducted research from around the world. These guidelines also apply to those who have had a diagnosis of cancer. They are based on interpretation of global studies. However, you are an individual and may wish to speak with your treatment team about how these guidelines are relevant to you. Among the guidelines are the following: 

1.  Aim to be slim throughout life, without being underweight 

2. Choose mostly plant foods – fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, beans and pulses. 

3. Cut back on red meats (beef, lamb, pork) and avoid processed meats such as sausages and bacon. 

4. Limit processed and takeaway foods, salty and fatty foods, and sugary foods and drinks. 

5. Limit alcoholic drinks to, at most, 2 units for men and 1 unit for women per day. 

6. Avoid using supplements with the intention of preventing cancer (primary or secondary)

These guidelines can appear quite challenging but most people feel the benefit of making even small changes to their diet. Success from making small changes can lead to other, bigger, changes. 

It’s up to you how far you want to go when it comes to looking after yourself. There are unfortunately no guarantees that anything that you do will prevent cancer from returning, but being actively involved –through eating well, exercising, having emotional support – may help you to keep as well as you can. People often find that just taking the time to look after themselves, or be looked after by others, can have a positive effect on recovery or living with cancer.

Copyright Kellie Anderson 2011. Extracted from pre-publication manuscript.

Recommended Reading: American Institute for Cancer Research “Living with Cancer” online flipbook – for during treatment and post-treatment guidance

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2 thoughts on “Eating Well During Cancer Treatment

  1. j george says:

    nice bullet points!! i was working from a list of 28 super foods and now i added yours to my notes for overall guidance. heres the 28 from another blog:

    1. Thanks John, I will look at the link. Thanks for stopping by.

If you have time, I would love to hear from you. Thanks so much!

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