Nutrition and Cancer

Adequate nutrition is important for people with cancer. Cancer patients often lose essential muscle and tissue after diagnosis, and this weight loss can negatively impact their prognosis. Some changes to your diet might help you feel better during and after cancer treatment. Begin with a balanced, healthy diet. A balanced diet can help you feel better, maintain weight and energy, fight off infection and recover more quickly. It could also help you cope with certain side effects of cancer treatment.

The diversity of available nutritional advice can leave patients’ heads spinning. People with mesothelioma can turn to registered dietitians for help. A dietitian can relieve patients of the stress associated with searching through the bounty of information available on cancer and diet.

Diet and Cancer

In the past, people turned to the Food Guide Pyramid for advice on a balanced diet. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) retired the Food Guide Pyramid years ago and replaced it with My Plate. However, My Plate fails to give people the adequate nutrition advice they need to eat a healthy diet.

To fill the void, faculty members at the Harvard School of Public Health created the Healthy Eating Plate. It contains guidelines on what composes a healthy diet with a visual of what portions should look like on your plate.

The effects of cancer and treatment can make it difficult to eat. It may become challenging to follow the Healthy Eating Plate guidelines. You may have to alter what you eat and how you eat to get adequate nutrition during this time. In some cases supplementation might be recommended.

  • Supplements

    Your doctor or dietitian will let you know if you need to use nutritional supplements. Most supplements should be avoided during cancer treatment, as certain supplements can interfere with the effectiveness of treatments. If you want to take a particular supplement, ask your oncologist first.

  • Meal Planning

    Maintaining proper nutrition during treatment and recovery often involves effort from both the patient and the caregiver. Meal planning can alleviate some of the stress associated with food shopping and meal prepping.

    When food shopping, stock up on the patient's favorite foods (as well as all foods important to their nutritional needs) to reduce the need to shop often. Talk with a doctor or dietitian about meal plans and a grocery list. Prepare meals in advance, and freeze them in meal-size portions that are easy to heat up.

  • Tips to Get More from Your Meals

    Small Meal

    Eat multiple small meals throughout the day instead of three large ones.

    Pretzels as a snack.

    Snack whenever you are hungry, even if it is not mealtime, and enjoy the foods that appeal at the time.


    Drink liquids after meals or as snacks – not before or during mealtime. Liquid can fill you up before you have had the chance to consume the whole, nutrient-dense foods on your plate.

    Beans for Protetin

    Include a portion of protein like poultry, fish, eggs, beans or peanut butter at each meal.

    Fruits Before Being Juiced

    Juice fresh fruits and vegetables to obtain their nutrients without filling up.

    Breakfast for Dinner

    Consume your favorite foods any time of day. If you love breakfast foods, it's OK to eat them for lunch or dinner.

    Enjoying a Meal with Family

    Create a joyful or relaxing setting by enjoying your food in the company of friends or family.

    If you don't own a juicer, you can create juice with a blender and cheesecloth. Blend fruit or vegetables with filtered water, then strain with a cheesecloth. Cheesecloth is reusable and available at most grocery stores.

  • Tips to Add Protein

    • Eat protein-rich foods regularly, such as beans, nuts, spinach, cheese, eggs, tofu, chicken and fish.
    • Add cheese to omelets, sandwiches, soups, salads and casseroles.
    • Increase protein in milk by blending one packet of dry milk powder into one quart of whole milk.
    • Powdered milk can also be added to milkshakes, cream-based soups and mashed potatoes.
    • Add cooked meats to omelets, soups and salads.
    • Snack on cheese, nut butters, roasted nuts or organic sliced meats.
    • Blend nut butters or ice cream into smoothies and milkshakes.
    • Opt for desserts that are made with eggs, such as cheesecake, custard and pudding.
  • Tips to Add Calories

    • Avoid foods labeled as low-fat, non-fat and low-calorie. For example, choose whole milk in place of reduced fat.
    • Opt for high-calorie drinks like milkshakes with added ice cream or fruit nectars.
    • Cook with butter and oil, and add them to meals when possible. For example, top vegetables and bread with butter, or toss oil into rice, pasta and casseroles.
    • Add avocado to sandwiches and salads. Eat guacamole with tortilla chips.
    • Smear cream cheese onto bagels, sandwiches or crackers.
    • Toss salads with high-calorie dressings.
    • Top vegetables with creamy or cheesy sauces.
    • Add heavy cream or sour cream to dessert recipes, sauces and soups.
    • Use whipped cream or chocolate sauce to top pancakes, waffles, French toast, ice cream and cakes.
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Nutrition During Treatment

Treatment can affect your ability to eat as you normally do. You can take proactive measures to meet nutritional needs during treatment. Many of the tips above help people with cancer consume adequate nutrition during treatment; and the tips below can help you to cope with certain side effects of therapies.

Different treatments can impact your ability to eat.

  • Surgery

    Certain surgeries can complicate eating. Some peritoneal mesothelioma patients may receive nutrition intravenously for a short period of time after abdominal surgery.

    If you are underweight, you may need to gain weight before surgery. A healthy weight prior to surgery may help you heal wounds, fight infection and recover better.

  • Chemotherapy

    Chemotherapy targets cancerous cells, which divide rapidly. As a result, other cells that divide fast are killed by chemotherapy, including cells in the mouth, hair follicles and digestive tract. This means that chewing and digestion are affected by chemotherapy.

    For example, mouth sores caused by chemotherapy can make chewing difficult. Opting for cold, soft foods that require minimal to no chewing can help you eat if mouth sores develop. Chemotherapy can also induce nausea, decrease appetite or change the way food tastes. Alterations to your diet and eating habits can help you cope with these side effects.

  • Radiation therapy

    Receiving radiation therapy around the chest can impact swallowing. It is rare for peritoneal mesothelioma patients to receive radiation around the abdomen, but this can cause digestive issues like nausea, vomiting, cramps, bloating and diarrhea.

    Consuming flax seeds may protect the lungs from the toxic effects of radiation. A study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that lung cancer patients who consume flax seed during chemoradiation (the combination of chemotherapy and radiation) could tolerate higher levels of radiation without damage to the lungs. Researchers suspect the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of flax seed contribute to this effect.

  • Pain Medication

    Certain pain medications can decrease appetite, cause nausea and lead to constipation. Tailoring what you eat and how you eat can help. Increasing fiber and water intake can especially help with constipation. Make sure to drink plenty of water when increasing fiber; otherwise constipation may worsen.

Treatment Side Effect Dietary Recommendations
Dry Mouth Consume foods with high water content such as fruits, popsicles, gelatin and milkshakes. Avoid dry, salty foods such as crackers and pretzels.
Dehydration Consume foods with high water content; avoid alcohol and caffeine. Increase fluid intake to 8-12 glasses per day.
Diarrhea Avoid greasy, fatty or fried foods, raw vegetables, strong spices, alcohol and caffeine.
Constipation Consume foods with high amounts of soluble fiber such as bananas, potatoes and oatmeal. The probiotics found in yogurt may also be beneficial.
Nausea Bland foods such as rice and toast can help absorb stomach acid. Avoid strong-smelling foods.
Vomiting Avoid fried or sugary foods, as well as spicy foods.
Fatigue Increase overall caloric intake to supply the body with more energy.
Loss of Appetite Consider nutritional drinks such as Ensure or Boost. Eat small meals every two to three hours, and enjoy the foods that appeal to you. Keep high-calorie snacks such as nuts and cheese on hand.
Weight Loss Work with your treatment team to maintain a healthy weight after diagnosis. Many hospitals and cancer centers can connect you with a nutritionist or dietitian who can help you set and meet healthy weight goals.
Mouth Sores Avoid eating spicy foods or foods that require chewing. Instead, soft and bland foods like mashed potatoes, milkshakes, smoothies and ice cream will be easier to consume.

Foods to Aid Recovery

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If you're recovering from cancer treatment, altering your diet and receiving the proper nutrition can significantly help the recovery process. There are often side effects associated with treatments, and some foods and herbs can relieve pain. A balanced diet can ensure that you are receiving the vitamins and minerals necessary to remain healthy and aid recovery. The inclusion of certain foods might boost recovery.

The tannins and antioxidants contained in green tea may help slow or prevent the spread of cancer cells. Additionally, the oils found in fish contain EPA and DHA, two substances that make it harder for cancer cells to stick to blood vessels, reducing their ability to spread.

Pay attention to the following foods, which may help with recovery:

  • Fish oil: contains EPA and DHA, which decrease cancer cells' ability to spread
  • Fiber: keeps blood sugar level even and "starves" cancer cells
  • Coenzyme Q10: may help protect the heart during chemotherapy
  • Green tea: acts as a strong antioxidant

Survivor Tips

Some mesothelioma survivors have greatly benefitted from altering their intake of foods and herbs. One patient survived seven years with pleural mesothelioma without undergoing surgery or chemotherapy by sticking to a strict nutritional regimen and mind-body therapy. He focused on a diet rich in produce and low in sugar. Another patient, diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma in 1997, continues to survive with a strict vegetarian diet, as well as other holistic treatment measures. Among many other supplements, he uses flax seed and vitamin C in his all-natural approach.

Before dietary changes are made, all mesothelioma patients should consult with their doctor to determine if such changes are beneficial for them. With a proper nutrition plan, quality of life and overall general health may improve.

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Joining the team in February 2008 as a writer and editor, Michelle Whitmer has translated medical jargon into patient-friendly information at for more than eight years. Michelle is a registered yoga teacher, a member of the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine, and was quoted by The New York Times on the risks of asbestos exposure. If you have a story idea for Michelle, please email her at

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