Nutrition for Cancer Survivors

A cancer survivor is anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer, from the time of diagnosis through the rest of their life. Survivors in each of these phases have different needs and challenges with respect to diet and nutrition.

+ Expand All

ACS Nutrition and Physical Activity Guidelines for Cancer Survivors

Scientists agree that current evidence supports the following basic nutritional and physical activity guidelines for survivors, as summarized by the American Cancer Society:

Achieve and maintain a healthy weight

  • If overweight or obese, limit consumption of high-calorie foods and beverages and increase physical activity to promote weight loss

Engage in regular physical activity

  • Avoid inactivity and return to normal daily activities as soon as possible following diagnosis
  • Aim to exercise at least 150 minutes per week
  • Include strength training exercises at least 2 days per week

Eat a diet that is high in vegetables, fruits and whole grains

  • Choose food and drinks in amounts that achieve and maintain a healthy weight
  • Limit how much processed meat and red meat you eat
  • Eat at least 2½ cups of vegetables and fruits each day
  • Choose whole grains instead of refined grains
  • If you drink alcohol, drink no more than 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men

Nutrition During Treatment and Recovery

Surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy can place special demands on the body, and getting through these treatments requires adequate intake of energy and essential nutrients to promote healing and recovery.

Nutritional requirements for people with cancer are designed to build up strength and withstand the effects of treatment. Cancer treatments can change nutritional needs and interfere with the intake and how the body uses food, but specific dietary strategies can help to minimize the negative side effects of treatment. (Negative side effects may include: undesired weight loss, weakened immune system, fatigue, and reduced appetite.)

Overall Goals

During active cancer treatment, the overall goals of nutritional care for survivors should be:

  • Prevent or resolve nutrient deficiencies
  • Achieve or maintain a healthy weight
  • Preserve lean body mass
  • Minimize nutrition-related side effects
  • Maximize quality of life

Strategies for Specific Issues

Use these strategies if you're experiencing one of the following issues:

Poor appetite or getting full quicky

  • Eat small frequent meals
  • Minimize liquids at mealtimes. Consume liquids in between meals

Difficulty swallowing

  • Avoid foods with rough textures
  • Choose foods that are cold or room temperature
  • Choose foods that are semisolid or soft

Fatigue

  • Keep easy-to-prepare and easy-to-eat foods available
  • Drink nutrient-dense juices and other beverages
  • Ask friends and family members for help with buying and preparing foods that can be set aside for meals and snacks.

Nausea or vomiting

  • Eat small frequent meals
  • Minimize liquids at mealtimes
  • Try bland-tasting foods and foods that are cold or room temperature
  • Try salty foods
  • Try low-fat or dry food

Unable to meet nutritional needs through foods alone

  • Try fortified, commercially prepared, nutrient dense food or beverages (e.g. Ensure, Boost)
  • Try homemade nutrient dense food or beverages

Dietary Supplements

  • The use of dietary supplements during cancer treatment remains controversial.
  • During periods of severely impaired food intake, a daily multiple vitamin with minerals may be recommended. (Read the label; "100% daily value" is the recommended amount).
  • Higher doses of supplements, especially antioxidant supplements, are not recommended because this practice may interfere with the effectiveness of the treatments.
  • It is important to talk to your doctor about your supplement use.

Food Safety

  • Food safety is of particular concern when undergoing cancer treatments, because immune system function may be temporarily impaired as a result of chemotherapy.
  • By following the safe food practices, cancer survivors can reduce the risk of foodborne illness.

ACS general guidelines for food safety:

  • Wash hands with soap and water thoroughly before eating.
  • Keep all aspects of food preparation clean, including washing hands before food preparation and washing fruits and vegetables thoroughly.
  • Use special care in handling raw meats, fish, poultry, and eggs.
  • Thoroughly clean all utensils, countertops, cutting boards, and sponges that have contact with raw meat; keep raw meats and ready-to-eat foods separate.
  • Cook foods to proper temperatures; meats, poultry, and seafood should be thoroughly cooked and beverages (milk and juices) should be pasteurized.
  • Use a food thermometer to check internal temperatures of meats before serving.
  • Store foods promptly at low temperatures (below 40_F) to minimize bacterial growth.
  • When eating in restaurants, avoid foods that may have potential bacterial contamination such as items from salad bars; sushi; or raw or undercooked meat, fish, shellfish, poultry, and eggs.
  • Avoid raw honey, milk, and unpasteurized fruit juice, and choose pasteurized versions instead.
  • If there is any question or concern about water purity (eg, well water), it can be checked for bacterial content by contacting your local public health department.

For information on food safety, visit http://www.fightbac.org/

Additional Resources