How to Eat Well After Cancer

When your cancer treatment is over and you start to feel better, you may be able to enjoy food again. It’s important to follow a healthy diet after treatment to nourish your body so you can recover.

Creating Your Cancer Recovery Diet

Just as your cancer treatment plan is tailored to your specific disease and health needs, your ongoing diet needs to support your recovery. It’s not as simple as “eat this, not that.” What you eat needs to account for treatment side effects, any digestion or swallowing changes, and medicines you’ll be taking. Following are general guidelines of foods to eat and what to avoid. For nutrition advice to address your unique needs, talk to a dietitian about a personalized eating plan.

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What to Eat

In general, you should eat a balanced diet that includes lots of fruits and vegetables, lean meats and fish, beans and legumes, whole grains (wheat), lower-fat dairy, and healthy fats. Eat foods in a variety of colors from every food group. Eating a variety of healthy foods helps ensure your body is getting all the key nutrients it needs (fat, carbohydrates, and protein), as well as micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). Healthy eating habits help you live longer and can even reduce the risk of cancer coming back, according to a study in Nutrition Reviews.

The National Comprehensive Cancer Network notes that numerous studies have concluded that a plant-based diet lowers the risk of many types of cancer. Plant-based doesn’t mean no meat. It just means that plant-based foods take up more space on your plate than meat or bread. Dark, leafy greens (like spinach, kale, and romaine lettuce) are always a good option to add to your diet. Think salads, sautéed greens, or even smoothies made with these greens.

Choose lean meats like chicken, turkey, and fish, or high fiber plant-based proteins like beans and lentils. Opt for lower-fat dairy and choose sources of healthy fats. That means food high in unsaturated fats, including avocado, nuts, nut butters, seeds, and vegetable oils such as olive oil.

Your doctor or dietitian may have specific food recommendations if you’re deficient in any nutrients or if you need to gain or lose weight.

What Not to Eat

There are a few foods and beverages the experts typically recommend you avoid or consume in small amounts. These include:

  • Processed and salt-cured meats like bacon, sausage, and deli meat
  • Red meat
  • Heavily processed snack foods
  • Sugary foods and drinks
  • Foods with a lot of fat
  • Alcohol in excess (more than one drink for women and two for men per day)

The World Health Organization concludes that processed meats and red meat can cause certain types of cancer. Lots of sugar, heavily processed foods, and high-fat foods can all make you gain weight or keep on weight you gained during treatment. Research has found a clear link between being overweight and having a higher risk of cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.

Your doctor may recommend some strategies based on your symptoms and long-term effects of treatment. You should aim to get all your nutrients from food and avoid taking vitamins or supplements unless your doctor recommends them.

What Difference Does Food Make?

Eating healthy foods keeps your body strong to boost healing, which helps you get back to feeling better faster. Eating a diet suited to your needs also helps you manage side effects and achieve a healthy weight.

Loss of taste or smell, nausea, swallowing difficulties, and other side effects can linger after treatment, affecting what you can or want to eat. You may find it best to ease into your eating plan, trying different foods with different textures until you learn what works best for you. You’ll also want to adjust your plan as you recover and begin to feel better.

Food is an emotional, personal subject for most people. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed about where to start. Talk with your care team or get a referral to a dietitian to develop an eating plan that meets your needs, makes you feel stronger, and that you enjoy.

You are in control — make changes that have a positive impact for you.

American Cancer Society. Eating Well after Treatment. Link

National Cancer Institute. Eating Hints: Before, during and after cancer treatment. Link

National Comprehensive Cancer Network. Nutrition for Cancer Survivors. Link

About UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

When you are facing cancer, you need the best care possible. UPMC Hillman Cancer Center provides world-class cancer care, from diagnosis to treatment, to help you in your cancer battle. We are the only comprehensive cancer center in our region, as designated by the National Cancer Institute. We have more than 70 locations throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, with more than 200 oncologists – making it easier for you to find world-class care close to home. Our internationally renowned research team is striving to find new advances in prevention, detection, and treatment. Most of all, we are here for you. Our patient-first approach aims to provide you and your loved ones the care and support you need. To find a provider near you, visit our website.