Getting Proper Nutrition During Cancer Treatment

February 19, 2019

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

Losing or Gaining Weight

Eating Well During Therapy

Good nutrition can be a strong ally during cancer treatment. Below are tips patients should consider.

Weight Loss

  • Eat nutrient-dense foods first so as not to get full too quickly on other things.
  • Keep indulgent foods on hand for when absolutely nothing else will do.
  • Add powdered milk to liquid milk. Sprinkle grated cheese in soups and on vegetables.

Lack of Energy

  • Ask for help with food shopping and meal preparation.
  • Eat off disposable plates and use plastic utensils to reduce clean-up time.
  • Try finger foods. Cheese, avocado sandwiches, and bananas with peanut butter can be quick and satisfying.


  • Take anti-nausea medication as directed.
  • Cold foods are often better tolerated.
  • Make sure food preparation areas are properly ventilated. Some odors can worsen nausea.

Mouth Sore

  • Choose soft textures and moisten solid foods with sauces or gravies.
  • Stay away from acidic, spicy and salty items, as well as tobacco and alcohol, as they can irritate mouth sores.
  • Take pain medication before meals or as prescribed.

Staying Hydrated

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 cancer patients, and many oncology practices have a dietitian with oncology experience on staff.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 effects, 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 treatment 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 people with cancer to have their water tested and, if contaminants are found, to install a filter that removes those specific pollutants. If water is from other sources, patients should use boiled or distilled water, or bottled water that specifies on its label that it was cleaned using reverse osmosis.

Sometimes it's hard to take enough water water to help avoid dehydration. Other ways to get fluids include broths, 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.