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Nutrition Before Cancer Treatment Begins

Nutrition and cancer

Good nutrition is important before, during, and after cancer treatment. Treatments may include radiation, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, immunotherapy, targeted therapy, surgery, or any combination of these. These procedures and medicines cause many people to lose their appetite and energy. This puts them at an increased risk for malnutrition.

Good food choices when you have cancer and are getting treatment may be very different from what you are used to eating. The main goal is to try to keep your weight constant while eating as many healthy nutrients as possible. To limit weight changes, heal correctly, and have the energy to cope with treatment, you may be asked to eat high-calorie and high-protein foods. These include:

  • Milk, cream, and cheese

  • Cooked eggs

  • Lean red meat, fish, and poultry

  • Sauces and gravies

  • Butter, margarine, and oil

Some of the advice will seem like the opposite of what you've always heard a healthy diet should include. But a high-calorie, high-protein diet may be needed for now. This is especially true if you are feeling weak or are underweight to begin with. It can be a challenge to get enough nutrients. You may not feel well or may not feel like eating. But proper attention to nutrition can help you recover, feel better, and stay stronger.

Before cancer treatment begins

Eating well before treatment starts may help to increase your energy. It can also improve your sleep, make you better able to fight infection, and help decrease side effects. To prepare yourself and your home so you can eat well during treatment, think about these tips:

  • Stock your fridge with plenty of your favorite foods so that you won't have to shop as often. Make sure these are foods you can eat when you're not feeling well.

  • Cook large portions of your favorite dishes in advance and freeze them in meal-sized portions.

  • 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 with a registered dietitian about meal planning, grocery shopping, and reducing side effects of treatment, like nausea and diarrhea.

  • Talk with your healthcare provider or dietitian about whether you should take a multivitamin.

By planning ahead, you can have foods on hand that you like to eat. This will benefit you later. You'll have good things to choose from in your kitchen, even if you don't feel well enough to make a meal.

Before you start treatment, ask your healthcare team what side effects you may have during treatment. This will help you plan well in advance. For instance:

  • Will you need to eat foods that are easy to chew and swallow?

  • Will you need to eat foods low in fiber?

  • Will you have a feeding tube or ostomy after treatment that requires you to follow a different diet?

  • Should you prepare foods in a special way to help prevent infection?

Before treatment begins, cancer itself can cause problems that may lead to trouble eating or weight loss. It's common to have:

  • Upset stomach (nausea) and vomiting

  • Poor digestion, or a feeling of early fullness

  • Sleepiness

  • Forgetfulness

Staying active during cancer treatment

Cancer treatment may make you very tired. You may even feel tired after resting or sleeping. You may not feel like starting a new exercise program. But light, regular physical activity is very good for you. Daily exercise can make you feel less tired and can help make it easier for you to do the things you need to do after treatment starts.

Even mild exercise can improve your appetite, stimulate digestion, prevent constipation, and give you more energy. Physical activity will also help lower stress, improve mood, and maintain muscle tone. Always talk with your healthcare provider before starting any exercise program. Find out what you can safely do. Then start slowly and build up as you can. Short walks can be a good start.

Medical Reviewers:

  • Jessica Gotwals RN BSN MPH
  • Richard LoCicero MD
  • Sabrina Felson MD