Nutrition and Cancer: 6 Frequently Asked Questions

Person cooking food in a pan

Caregivers can help make eating a pleasant experience for their loved ones by cooking and eating together.

Summary

Registered dietitian-nutritionist Michelle Myers discusses how to relieve some common symptoms from cancer treatment.

Nutrition plays an important role in the lives of those who have been diagnosed with cancer. As people undergo treatment and enter survivorship, their relationship with food can change. Memorial Sloan Kettering’s clinical dietitian-nutritionist team is here to help with any concerns that come up. This can include everything from food-related side effects and safe food handling and preparation to special and restricted diets.

“Everyone with cancer could benefit from meeting with a member of our team, regardless of what stage of treatment or survivorship they’re in,” says Michelle Myers, a registered dietitian-nutritionist at MSK. “I love getting patients back to eating and thinking about food the way they used to.”

Medical nutrition therapy is available for all MSK patients, says Ms. Myers, though people who are interested are encouraged to first speak with an MSK doctor or nurse.

“Whether you feel too nauseous to eat during chemotherapy or you saw something on the internet about a food you should avoid, or if you want help with maintaining your weight after treatment, we’re here to assist for all of it,” she says.

To learn more about how cancer care can affect nutrition and diet, we asked Ms. Myers some common questions.

What kind of diet should people follow during cancer treatment?

MSK clinical dietitian and nutritionist Michelle Myers

Michelle Myers

There’s no right diet for everyone. Your care team can help you figure out a plan that works for you. During treatment, you should focus on getting enough calories and protein while managing your symptoms. Be liberal with what you eat and choose your favorite foods — don’t worry too much about what those foods are.

To control symptoms from treatment, my recommendations depend on the type of care you’re receiving and specifically what doesn’t feel right. For example, those receiving chemotherapy may experience a loss of appetite, nausea, constipation, or diarrhea. I have specific instructions to help with each of those side effects.

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Let’s start with people experiencing nausea during chemotherapy. What diet is good for them?

To alleviate nausea while undergoing cancer treatment, try eating smaller portions of food, but eat more often. You should avoid food that’s high in fat, overly spicy, or overly sweet. This includes fried foods, pastries, or foods made with a lot of spices. High-fat foods stay in your stomach longer and are harder to digest. Avoid strong odors, such as cooking smells, smoke, or perfume, which can make nausea worse. Instead, try a bland diet consisting of foods like crackers, toast, pasta, yogurt, and skinless chicken.

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What about people who have constipation during cancer treatment?

I recommend gradually increasing your fiber intake and getting enough fluids. Foods that are high in fiber include fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains, such as some cereals, pasta, and brown rice. It’s crucial to drink enough throughout the day to keep the stool soft and to prevent gas and bloating.

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Are there nutritional tips for preventing diarrhea during cancer treatment?

The most important thing with diarrhea is preventing dehydration. I tell my patients that they should drink at least 64 ounces of fluids per day. That’s about the size of a two-liter bottle. Water is obviously a good fluid, but people can also drink fruit juice or tea. In order to replace sodium and potassium, which may be lost with diarrhea, you may want to drink an electrolyte-containing beverage such as Gatorade or unflavored Pedialyte. It’s vital to avoid very hot or cold foods, foods high in sugar or fat, or spicy foods. These are all hard on the digestive system.

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How can caregivers support a loved one who doesn’t want to eat?

I understand how upsetting it can be to watch a loved one who won’t eat. First, you should try to figure out if there are any specific symptoms that are going on besides the fact that they just don’t have an appetite. After that, you should encourage and support your loved one without applying too much pressure. Don’t force them to start eating if they don’t want to and don’t force them to finish their plate.

It’s important to make eating a pleasant experience. That could mean putting on music, setting the room to a more comfortable temperature, or including loved ones at the table. I also encourage people to try experimenting with different food temperatures and textures and using smaller plates so the amount to eat doesn’t seem overwhelming.

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What about after treatment? Is there anything people should or should not eat?

After treatment, when you’re feeling a little better and not experiencing side effects, focus on choosing healthy foods. Maintain a well-balanced diet of lean protein, whole grains, healthy fats, and a variety of fruits and vegetables.

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Comments

I eat mainly plant based and healthy. I am on Exemestane. Some days are ok and some are very bad in terms of pain and neuropathy. I don't know the triggers. I wonder if there are known "universal" triggers?

I am currently in treatment for pancreatic Cancer mestalic to the liver. Stage 4. No appetite no desire to eat. When I do it comes out. Lost 60 pounds in two months. Is there anything I can try to retain the food. I have an appt with slones this Monday.

Dear Donna, we’re sorry to hear you’ve been through this. We recommend that you discuss this with your MSK doctor or nurse at your appointment. He or she should be able to refer you to one of our nutritionists. Thank you for your comment and best wishes to you.

I wonder why MSK promotes eating meat and dairy, fails to recognize the extensive research linking the consumption of animal products to cancer, and does not respond to a patient's plant-based comment above.

Dear Kimberly, we forwarded your comment to dietitian-nutritionist Michelle Myers and she said, “We do recognize an association between high animal protein consumption and an increased RISK of developing certain types of cancers. However, this article addresses those with a cancer diagnosis versus those looking to decrease their cancer risk. What we do know is patients have increased nutrient needs with a cancer diagnosis and in this article we are discussing different ways to meet those needs in the setting of different symptoms.” Thank you for your comment.

I have had HPV related tonsil resection with a flap reconstruction of that area and soft palate. The issue with eating I have is that I can’t open my mouth wider than 20mm (one finger). It is hard to get 2000+ calories eating soups, ensure and smoothies. What can I do?

Dear Stan, we’re sorry to hear you’re going through this. We recommend that you discuss your concerns with your healthcare team. Thank you for your comment and best wishes to you.

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