Nutrition for Cancer Survivors
With treatment completed, you no doubt want to put cancer behind you and resume a more normal life. Now is
the time to take charge of your health, focus on wellness, and swear off unhealthy habits, such as fast foods and
a sedentary lifestyle. Research shows that the best formula for staving off another bout of cancer is proper
nutrition combined with weight control and exercise.
Food and Recurrence
While there are many benefits to eating well, the data are mixed on whether diet alone can prevent certain
cancers from returning. Nevertheless, there is strong evidence that a plant-based diet cuts the risk of cancer
overall. Many epidemiologic studies have shown that people who eat diets rich in fruits and vegetables and
sparse in meat and animal fat have lower rates of some cancers, including lung, breast, colon and stomach
The mechanisms at work are still being explored, but studies indicate that red meat promotes inflammation in
human tissue; this inflammation is believed to stimulate the growth of cancerous tumors. Plant foods, on the
other hand, contain antioxidants such as beta-carotene, lycopene, and vitamins A, C, and E, which protect the
cells from free radicals – unstable molecules that damage healthy cells and are linked to aging and disease.
Phytochemicals, also found in fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains, are compounds that may thwart the action
of carcinogens (cancer-causing substances) and aid cells in blocking the development of cancer.
Weight and Recurrence
There is evidence that being overweight, which is a risk factor for numerous types of cancer, also increases the
chance of recurrence and lowers odds for survival. Research has shown that women who gain more than 13
pounds during treatment for early-stage breast cancer are 1.5 times more likely to experience a cancer
recurrence. Studies show that for men who have had prostate cancer, being overweight or obese raises the
chances that their cancer will recur, spread, or lead to death.
What’s Best to Eat?
During cancer treatment, many people lose weight because chemotherapy and radiation side effects, such as
nausea, taste changes and loss of appetite, make eating unpalatable; sometimes the therapy itself impairs the
absorption of nutrients. Other people may put on pounds from medications, reduced activity, or emotional and
stress-related eating. Consulting with a dietician may help you develop the best eating plan for your situation.
Ask your doctor for a referral.
Whether you want to gain, lose, or maintain weight, experts recommend that cancer survivors follow these
guidelines for a healthy diet:
Eat a minimum of five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. A serving can be a cup of dark leafy greens
or berries, a medium fruit, or a half cup of other colorful choices; use plant-based seasonings like parsley
Go for whole grains. Opt for high-fiber breads and cereals, including brown rice, barley, bulgur, and oats;
avoid refined foods, such as donuts and white bread, and those high in sugar;
Choose lean protein. Stick to fish, poultry, and tofu, limiting red meat and processed meats;
Keep dairy low fat. Select skim milk, low-fat yogurt, and reduced-fat cheeses.
Other tips to maximize nutrition:
Aim for a variety of foods. Create a balanced plate that is one-half cooked or raw vegetables, one-fourth
lean protein (chicken, fish, lean meat, or dairy) and one-fourth whole grains;
Eat fatty fish, such as salmon, sardines, and canned tuna at least twice a week. The fats in these fish are
the “good” heart-healthy omega-3 fats; other sources of these fats include walnuts, canola oil, and
Limit alcohol consumption. Alcohol has been linked to cancer risk. Men should have no more than two
drinks a day; women should have no more than one drink;
Eat foods high in vitamin D. These include salmon, sardines, fortified orange juice, milk, and fortified
cereal. Research suggests that vitamin D, which also comes from sun exposure, prevents cancer and may
decrease the risk of recurrence and improve survival. People in regions with limited sunshine may be
deficient and thus benefit from a vitamin D3 supplement (ask your physician about a blood test to measure
Food – not supplements – are the best source of vitamins and minerals. There is no evidence that dietary
supplements provide the same anti-cancer benefits as fruits and vegetables, and some high-dose
supplements may actually increase cancer risk.
Be “mindful” when eating. Research suggests that we tend to eat more calories and food with fewer
nutrients when we are watching TV, driving, or doing other activities.
To Go or Not to Go Organic
Research on the nutritional benefits of organic fruits and vegetables has been mixed, and there have been no
studies examining whether organic produce is better at preventing cancer or cancer recurrence than non-organic
Stephanie Meyers, a senior clinical nutritionist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Center in Boston, tells her clients to
buy whatever produce they like, and to rinse all fruits and vegetables thoroughly with clean water. Buying
organic foods is a personal choice, Meyer says, and cancer survivors do themselves no harm by not choosing to
For more information on pesticides in produce, visit the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide.
To read more of this article go to the National Comprehensive Cancer Network
Are you struggling with learning how to eat healthy? Do you need help planning healthy and delicious meals? We can help you! We have a “Recipe Club” that will provide you with 5 healthy and delicious and easy dinner recipes every week along with a shopping list. Contact us today and we will get you started.
Cathy Bowers, RD