Nutrition Before Cancer Treatment Begins

Nutrition and cancer

Good nutrition is important before, during, and after cancer treatment. Treatments may involve 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. To limit weight changes, heal properly, 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 recommendations 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. It can be a challenge to get enough nutrients because 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 refrigerator 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 treatment begins, cancer itself can cause problems that may lead to trouble eating or weight loss. It's common to have:

  • Problems with milk sugar (lactose intolerance)

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Poor digestion, or a feeling of early fullness

  • Sleepiness

  • Forgetfulness

What is lactose intolerance?

Lactose intolerance is a condition in which your body can't digest or absorb the sugar called lactose, which is found in milk and dairy products. This intolerance is usually caused by the lack of the enzyme called lactase. Lactase helps to break down lactose so you can digest it.

Some people who have radiation to the belly or pelvis, have surgery that affects the intestines, or get certain medicines, develop lactose intolerance. Symptoms include diarrhea, gas, bloating, and stomach pain or cramps. If you have any of these symptoms after eating dairy products, talk with your healthcare provider or dietitian. You may need to limit your dairy intake.

Dairy products like milk, cheese, ice cream, yogurt, and sherbet contain lactose. Some prepared foods have dairy products in them that contain lactose. Many other foods may also have hidden sources of lactose. Check food labels to find out if they contain milk, milk by-products, or lactose. Look for terms such as:

  • Milk

  • Milk solids

  • Skim milk powder

  • Cream

  • Buttermilk

  • Malted milk

  • Whey lactose

  • Curds

  • Dry milk solids

  • Nonfat dry milk

These foods contain lactose. Some foods that may have hidden sources of lactose include:

  • Breads, biscuits, and pancakes

  • Candy

  • Cookies and cakes

  • Cold cuts and bologna

  • Hot dogs, sausage, and bacon

  • Sauces, gravies, and salad dressings

  • Cream soup

  • Dessert mixes

  • Frostings

  • Chocolate drink mixes

  • Cereal

  • Non-dairy coffee creamers and whipped toppings

  • Protein powders, smoothies, and bars

  • Margarine

You may not need to eliminate all lactose-containing foods from your diet because your body makes 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 slowly increasing your intake. Because lactose intolerance is not an allergy, there are no long-term health problems if you accidentally eat or drink lactose. Symptoms will ease as the lactose moves through your digestive system.

You may have to substitute other things for the dairy products you're used to eating. It's also important to add other sources of calcium when foods containing lactose are dropped from your diet. You may try a lactose-free or low-lactose milk. This milk has the lactose reduced or removed. Your healthcare provider or registered dietitian can give you more information about this product and others like it. They can also talk with you about how to get calcium, either in other foods or as a vitamin.

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.

Online Medical Reviewer: Kimberly Stump-Sutliff RN MSN AOCNS
Online Medical Reviewer: Louise Cunningham RN BSN
Online Medical Reviewer: Todd Gersten MD
Date Last Reviewed: 10/1/2020
© 2000-2023 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.