Getting Proper Nutrition During Cancer Treatment

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Maintaining a healthy diet, including proper hydration, is important during cancer.

Maintaining a healthy diet is important during treatment. Patients might think loading up on vitamins instead will help fight the cancer or reduce some negative side effects of treatment. Unfortunately, certain dietary supplements do more harm than good, as some can actually interfere with drugs used for cancer treatment. In fact, many oncologists discourage patients from using any supplements during treatment. Therefore, patients who are trying to balance their nutritional needs during treatment should consult their doctors before using dietary supplements.


Weight loss or gain is a common side effect, depending on the cancer type or its treatment. Fatigue and decreased physical activity can also contribute. Increasing consumption of vegetables and fresh fruits can help patients to cope with weight fluctuations. With approval from their doctor, patients can exercise to help with fatigue, weight maintenance, anxiety and mobility. Some gyms and cancer centers have programs designed for patients with cancer, and many oncology practices have a dietitian with oncology experience on staff.Water is the most important substance in a patient’s diet.


During cancer treatment, you might need to change your diet to help keep up your strength and cope with side effects that can make it difficult for you to meet your nutritional needs. Your health care team can refer you to a dietitian who can help individualize your eating plan based on your specific needs.

Having frequent small meals might make eating easier if you don’t feel well, and can help keep your energy up.

Those who are finding it difficult to tolerate nutritious foods should eat whatever is most appealing to them.

Special diets can be helpful for people with specific cancers, or who are undergoing certain treatments; ask your care team to advise you.

Finally, take care to avoid fad diets and eating plans you might learn about from friends or on the internet, especially any promoted by those with money- making interests. Talk to your health care team about the best eating plan for you during treatment.


Water is the most important substance in a patient’s diet. Dehydration occurs when the body takes in less fluid than it releases. It happens quickly when a patient has diarrhea, vomiting or fever with sweating. Patients might not have the desire or energy to eat or drink, so when they do feel thirsty, they are probably already dehydrated. Symptoms include little or dark-colored urine, fatigue, sunken eyes and skin that remains raised if pinched (called decreased or poor skin turgor). Signs of severe dehydration, such as low blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, dizziness and confusion, could require immediate intravenous fluids.

Proper hydration can help ease common side effects, such as constipation and fatigue, as well as rare but serious ones, such as kidney damage. Because the kidneys filter waste, chemicals and excess compounds from the blood, intravenous fluids are given during some types of treatment, and patients might be told to drink water before and after therapy to flush toxins through the kidneys and bladder quickly.

Patients with compromised immune systems can stay hydrated by drinking water. Tap water may be OK if it is from a municipal water supply. If water is from a private well, it is best for patients with cancer to have it tested and, if contaminants are found, to install a filter that removes those specific pollutants. If it comes from other sources, patients should boil and cool
their water before drinking it, use distilled water or choose bottled brands that specify on their labels that it was cleaned using reverse osmosis.

Sometimes it’s hard to take in enough water to help avoid dehydration. Other ways to get fluids include broth, sports drinks, juice, gelatin, ice chips and Popsicles. Patients should talk with their cancer teams if they have concerns. Good hydration is one way patients can stay as healthy as possible and feel better during and after treatment.