Cancer-Fighting Food Tactics

Understanding how and what to eat when you're fighting cancer

I had a friend with cancer who had been convinced that his diet was a cause of his disease. In a search for answers, he blamed dairy as one of the culprits. He did his best to avoid it, even though from his hospital bed, where his weight was rapidly dropping by the day, all he craved was a milkshake.

When you're living with cancer, knowing how to eat can be confusing — all the more so because the experience of cancer is so individualized. Margaret Ziegler of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center explains what a cancer patient is up against, “Every person with cancer has a unique experience, and you don’t know what to expect. There’s an overload of information — from the Internet, friends, family — and it’s not always accurate. It becomes overwhelming.”

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Though the basic tenets of a healthy diet remain the same (eating plant-based foods, whole grains, and lean proteins), there are no all-inclusive recommendations that can be offered when advising one what to eat if they have cancer, no “one-fits-all” diet plan. “The types of nutrients and foods that a cancer patient needs more of are really hard to pinpoint, because the needs are so individualized,” says Colleen Doyle, director of nutrition and physical activity at the American Cancer Society. “Depending on someone’s nutritional status at the point of diagnosis, the stage of diagnosis, the type of treatment, how they respond to treatment, what side effects they may experience... the list goes on.”

This is where the role of a dietician becomes so important. According to Mary Eve Brown, a nutrition specialist at Johns Hopkins, “A dietician knows what the challenges are and can give people the tools to work with.” Dieticians focus on helping patients maintain a healthy weight (both weight loss and weight gain can occur depending on the type of cancer and treatment), and managing the symptoms that can arise such as loss of appetite, nausea, taste changes, diarrhea, or mouth soreness. Dieticians also help patients build a “tool kit” of strategies to deal with the challenges of eating while living with cancer, providing suggestions on how to structure meal times, recipes for healthy snacks, and easy prep tools.

With all of the stresses that come with cancer, nutrition may be the last thing on a person’s mind, but Ziegler emphasizes, “Food is as important as medicine. Patients that are able to stay hydrated and well-nourished recover more quickly.” Eating a highly nutritious diet is an essential part of cancer recovery, but sometimes it helps to be reminded that food should never be a source of guilt, either. “We can’t control everything,” nutritionist Carol Sullivan points out. “People put pressure on themselves to eat a certain way, but eating should never be stressful. Moderation is important.” My friend should have had that milkshake, and 10 more after it. When someone is going through something as difficult as cancer, it can sometimes be necessary to take a step back and embrace the basic, healing potential of food.