Nutrition and Cancer

Nutrition is the process of eating all the types of food substances the body needs in order to grow, heal and stay active. A nutritious diet is essential to maintaining muscle mass and recovering from mesothelioma treatments. This is why well-nourished mesothelioma patients tend to have a better prognosis.

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The most common nutritional problems for cancer patients include consuming too little protein and too few calories, which are essential to aid recovery, boost immunity and fight fatigue.

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 feel overwhelming to sort through. People with mesothelioma can turn to registered dietitians for help. A dietitian can relieve you 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.

Diagram of a healthy eating plate
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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.


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

Do I Need to Go Organic?

Cancer patients receive a lot of pressure to eat healthfully. Part of the pressure involves eating organic foods. But, do organic foods make that much of an impact on overall health?

Scientists say that the additives and pesticides in non-organic foods are not known to directly cause cancer, but they may increase cancer risk over time through their hormone-like reactions in the body.

A 12-year Consumer Reports study showed that certain produce, such as green beans and strawberries, contained high levels of pesticide residue, while others contained low levels, such as lettuce and bananas. This research suggests that it might be wise to buy certain organic foods to avoid high pesticide exposure.

Take time to research and consider your dietary options. What you eat is a personal decision and entirely up to you. Consider weighing the advice of your oncologist or a registered dietician, but take advice from non-professionals with a grain of salt.

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Meal Planning

Maintaining proper nutrition during treatment and recovery 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 mesothelioma 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

  • Eat multiple small meals throughout the day instead of three large ones.
  • Snack whenever you are hungry, even if it is not mealtime, and enjoy the foods that appeal to you at the time.
  • Drink liquids after meals or as snacks — not before or during mealtime. Liquid can fill you up before you have the chance to consume the whole, nutrient-dense foods on your plate.
  • Include a portion of protein, such as poultry, fish, eggs, beans or peanut butter, at each meal.
  • Juice fresh fruits and vegetables to obtain their nutrients without filling up. 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, which is reusable and available at most grocery stores.
  • Consume your favorite foods any time of day. If you love breakfast foods, it’s OK to eat them for lunch or dinner.
  • Create a joyful or relaxing setting by enjoying your food in the company of friends or family.

Tips to Add Protein

  • Eat protein-rich foods regularly, such as beans, nuts, spinach, quinoa, 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 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 Cancer 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 discussed help people with cancer consume adequate nutrition during treatment. The following suggestions can help you cope with certain side effects of therapies.


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 mesothelioma surgery may help you heal wounds, fight infection and recover better.


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 (compounds that reduce DNA damage) 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.

Using Diet to Cope with Side Effects

Dietary tips to better cope with the side effects of cancer treatment.
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.

Food Safety and Mesothelioma

People undergoing mesothelioma treatment can be at heightened risk for foodborne illness. That’s because cancer therapies, such as radiation and chemotherapy, often weaken the immune system.

A weakened immune system may not properly fight bacteria, parasites or other potentially dangerous organisms in food. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services outlines the following four important steps to ensure food safety:

  • Clean: Wash hands for a minimum of 20 seconds with soap and running water after handling eggs, unwashed produce, raw meat, poultry and seafood. Thoroughly clean counters, cutting boards and utensils with soap and water between handling these foods and fresh vegetables and fruit.
  • Separate: Use separate cutting boards and knives for uncooked meat, poultry and seafood and fresh produce (vegetables and fruit). Separate these foods in the refrigerator and avoid drips from raw meat, seafood and poultry onto other foods.
  • Cook: Cook all foods to the proper temperature. Ground meats, such as hamburger and sausage, must be cooked to at least 160 F all the way through the meat. Cook poultry to a minimum internal temperature of 165 F. Beef, pork, lamb and veal must be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 145 F. Use a meat thermometer to ensure you reach these temperatures.
  • Chill: Never thaw frozen food on the counter. Thaw foods in the refrigerator and place on a plate or pan to avoid any drips onto ready-to-eat items below. Refrigerate perishable foods, such as salads and casseroles, within one hour.

Foods to Aid Recovery

If you’re recovering from cancer treatment, altering your diet and receiving proper nutrition can significantly help the recovery process. There are often side effects associated with treatments, and some foods and herbs can relieve pain. Limiting your sugar intake will keep inflammatory pain in control. 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.

Quick Fact:

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

For example, 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. Pumpkins and other squash are packed with beta-carotene, lutein and other antioxidants. Cancer-fighting compounds, such as glucosinolates, are found in cauliflower. The powerful anti-inflammatory compound known as omega-3 is prevalent in cold-water fish such as wild salmon or cod.

Consider the following foods, which may help with recovery:

  • Fish Oil: Contains EPA and DHA that inhibit metastasis
  • Fiber: Prevents high insulin levels that promote cancer cell growth
  • Turmeric: A powerful anti-inflammatory with anti-cancer properties
  • Coenzyme Q10: May help protect the heart during chemotherapy
  • Grape Seed Extract: Kills cancer cells and boosts effects of doxorubicin chemotherapy
  • Green Tea: Acts as a strong antioxidant
  • Essiac Tea: Another source of antioxidants

Survivor Tips

Some mesothelioma survivors have greatly benefitted from changing their diet and trying different herbs or supplements.

Billy K. was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma in 2013 and received three rounds of chemotherapy before turning to alternative medicine. The Vietnam veteran drank tea made from moringa leaves, which are known for their anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties.

Beth M. has lived with peritoneal mesothelioma for nearly two decades using integrative medicine. She combined traditional cancer treatment with complementary therapies such as regular exercise and dietary changes.

Beth M., Peritoneal mesothelioma survivor diagnosed in 2000
Beth M. Peritoneal mesothelioma survivor diagnosed in 2000

“You have to look way outside the box to find good information on alternative treatment. There’s not a lot of stuff out there in the mainstream medical community, and that’s discouraging. But, when you learn about it, and how integrative medicine works, it will blow you away.”

Ruth P. has lived more than 16 years with peritoneal mesothelioma thanks to alternative medicine. She was diagnosed in 1999 and was told she only qualified for chemotherapy, which might give her eight to 12 months to live. She decided against chemotherapy and turned to nutritional injections, antioxidant supplementation and natural immune-boosting therapies that she received from a controversial alternative medicine center in Freeport, Bahamas.

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Last Modified September 24, 2018

Registered & Licensed Dietitian

Tejal Parekh is a registered and licensed dietitian in Florida with a master’s in nutrition and dietetics from Georgia State University. She realized her passion more than 10 years ago when she started working with cancer patients. Tejal also is one of the first dietitians in Florida to be board-certified as a specialist in oncology nutrition.

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12 Cited Article Sources

  1. Berman, A.T., Turowski, J., Mick, R. Cengel, K., Farnese, N., Basel-Brown, L., … & Ramesh, R. (2013). Dietary flaxseed in non-small cell lung cancer patients receiving chemoradiation. Journal of Pulmonary Respiratory Medicine, 3:4. doi: 10.4172/2161-105X.1000154
  2. Below, J.E., Cox, N.J., Fukagawa, N.K., Hirvonen, A., & Testa, J.R. (2011, Jun. 2). Factors that impact susceptibility to fiber-induced health effects. Journal of Toxicological & Environmental Health, Part B: Critical Reviews, 14 (1-4), 246-266. doi: 10.1080/10937404.2011.556052
  3. Boston University School of Public Health. (2013). Are there health benefits to being a vegetarian? Retrieved from:
  4. Cancer Research UK. (2013). What is the Budwig diet? Retrieved from:
  5. Harvard School of Public Health. (). Food pyramids and plates: What should you really eat? Retrieved from:
  6. Lerner, B.H. (2005, Nov. 15). McQueens legacy of laetrile. Retrieved from:
  7. Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. (2012, Jun. 1). Eating well during and after your cancer treatment. Retrieved from:
  8. National Cancer Institute. (2013, Oct. 29). Effects of cancer treatment on nutrition. Retrieved from:
  9. Stanford Medicine. (2013). Nutrition to reduce cancer risk. Retrieved from:
  10. USDA. (2014). Food groups. Retrieved from:
  11. Yao, Z.H., Tian, G.Y., Wan, Y.Y., Kang, Y.M., Gou, H.S., Liu, Q.H., & Lin, D.J. (2013, Oct. 23). Prognostic nutritional index predicts outcomes of malignant pleural mesothelioma. Journal of Cancer Research and Clinical Oncology, 139(12): 2117-2123. doi: 10.1007/s00432-013-1523-0 Retrieved from:
  12. Consumer Reports. (2015, March 19). Pesticides in produce. Retrieved from:

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  • Last Modified September 24, 2018
  • This Page has been Fact Checked

    A board-certified physician medically reviewed the content on this page to ensure it is accurate and follows current medical and scientific standards.

    The medical specialties of physicians who review pages on include oncology, surgical oncology, radiation oncology, internal medicine and occupational medicine.

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