Nutrition Before Cancer Treatment Begins
Nutrition and cancer
It is very important to maintain proper nutrition before, during, and after cancer
treatment. Such treatments may involve radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy,
biological immunotherapy, and/or surgery. These procedures and medicines can cause
many individuals to lose their appetite and energy. This puts them at an increased
risk for malnutrition.
Your food choices when you have cancer and are undergoing treatment may be very different
from what you are used to eating. The main goal is to try to keep your weight constant.
In order to minimize weight changes, heal properly, and maintain the energy to cope
with all the new challenges treatment may bring, you may be told to eat a wide variety
of high-calorie and high-protein foods, including the following:
Sometimes, the recommendations given to you detailing what you should eat during your
treatment will seem like the opposite of what you have always heard a healthy diet
should include. However, following a high-calorie, high-protein diet may be encouraged.
This is especially true if you are feeling weak or are underweight. It can be a challenge
to get enough nutrients because you may not feel well or may not feel like eating.
Proper attention to nutrition can assist in an easier recovery.
Before cancer treatment begins
Eating well before cancer treatment begins may help to increase your energy. It can
also improve your sleeping patterns. To prepare yourself and your home for your nutritional
needs during cancer therapy, consider the following suggestions:
Stock the refrigerator with plenty of your favorite foods so that you will not have
to shop as often. Make sure these are foods you can eat when you are not feeling well.
Cook large portions of your favorite dishes in advance and freeze them in meal-sized
To save your energy, buy foods that are easy to prepare. Examples are peanut butter,
pudding, frozen dinners, soup, canned fish or chicken, cheese, and eggs.
Ask family and friends to help you cook and shop.
Talk to a registered dietitian about meal planning, grocery shopping, and reducing
side effects of treatment, such as nausea and diarrhea.
Talk to your healthcare provider or registered dietitian about whether you should
take a multivitamin.
By planning ahead, you will have foods on hand that you like to eat. This will benefit
you later. You will have good things to choose from in your kitchen, even if you do
not feel well enough to prepare an elaborate meal. You may also come to think differently
about your weight. If you have been concerned in the past about weight gain, your
focus will likely change to eating enough to keep your weight constant.
Before treatment begins, cancer itself can cause problems that may result in eating
problems or weight loss. It is not uncommon to have lactose intolerance (intolerance
to milk sugar), nausea, vomiting, poor digestion, or a feeling of early fullness,
sleepiness, and forgetfulness even before treatment for cancer.
What is lactose intolerance?
Lactose intolerance is a condition in which your body cannot digest or absorb the
milk sugar called lactose. This is usually due to the lack of an enzyme, called lactase.
Lactase helps to break down lactose so the body can digest it. Individuals with cancer
often have lactose intolerance. Symptoms include diarrhea, gas, bloating, and stomach
pain or cramps. If you experience some of these symptoms after eating dairy products,
talk to your healthcare provider or dietitian. You may need to limit the amount of
dairy you consume.
Dairy products, such as milk, cheese, ice cream, yogurt, and sherbet, contain lactose.
Certain prepared foods have dairy products in them that also contain lactose. Many
other foods may also have hidden sources of lactose. Check the labels of products
to determine if they contain milk, milk by-products, or lactose. Look for terms such
Skim milk powder
Dry milk solids
Nonfat dry milk
These foods contain lactose and you should make sure that you tolerate them. Some
foods that may have hidden sources of lactose include:
Many individuals with lactose intolerance do not have to eliminate lactose-containing
foods entirely from their diet because they make small amounts of lactase. Lactose
levels vary in foods. Hard cheeses and yogurt have the least amount of lactose. Learn
how much lactose you can tolerate by trying one-fourth cup of milk and gradually increasing
your intake. Because lactose intolerance is not an allergy, there are no long-term
health problems if lactose is accidentally taken into the body by an individual. Symptoms
will lessen as the lactose moves through the digestive system.
You may have to substitute other things for the dairy products you are used to eating.
It is important to add other sources of calcium when foods containing lactose are
omitted from your diet. You may also wish to try a lactose-free or low-lactose milk
where the lactose has been reduced or removed. Your healthcare provider or registered
dietitian can provide more information about this product.
The U.S. Dietary Reference Intake for calcium is 1,000 milligrams (mg) per day for
adults ages 50 and under. For women over the age of 50 and men over the age of 70,
the recommendation increases to 1,200 milligrams of calcium per day. If you are not
using milk or milk products, you may not be getting the appropriate amount of calcium
needed to build and maintain strong bones and teeth. The following foods are good
sources of calcium (a registered dietitian can also provide additional suggestions):
50-100 mg of calcium
100-300 mg of calcium
2 oz. canned sardines
1/2 cup tofu
1 1/2 cups dried beans
4 oz. canned salmon
300-400 mg of calcium
Staying active during cancer treatment
Cancer treatment may cause extreme tiredness, which is not likely to inspire you to
begin a new exercise program. Light, daily exercise before you start to feel tired
will make it easier for you to continue regular daily physical activity after your
Once you begin treatment, light, regular physical activity is very good for you. It
will improve your appetite, stimulate digestion, prevent constipation, and provide
additional energy. Physical activity will also help decrease stress, improve mood,
and maintain muscle tone. Always talk with your healthcare provider before beginning
any exercise program.