10 Healthy Foods for Cancer Patients

Brothy soups and vegetables are two of the foods that are beneficial to cancer patients.
Brothy soups and vegetables are two of the foods that are beneficial to cancer patients.

A nutritious diet during cancer treatment includes a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and protein, and very few fatty, fried or sugary foods. While no foods are really off-limits during treatment (when you're in nausea's grip, whatever you can keep down is fair game, right?), some foods are better choices than others.

These are foods that may work with you as you manage your treatments, whether it's chemo, radiation or surgery.

Important: Some studies show that the antioxidant effects of some foods could interfere with some chemotherapy treatments, so be sure to always consult a physician before adding any supplements to your diet.


Eggs are a good source of B vitamins, plus contain 7 grams of protein each, the same amount in a serving ounce of beef, poultry, fish and cheese. And, new studies are indicating that eggs' selenium value may help reduce the side effects from chemotherapy.

In a study published in Gynecologic Oncology, women undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer who were given selenium supplements were found to have high antioxidant activity in their blood and higher white blood cell counts (which helps fight infections). These women given selenium treatment also had less nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, intestinal gas, mouth sores, hair loss, weakness, malaise and loss of appetite.

Egg yolks are also rich in vitamins D and E. In some studies, it was found that vitamin E, an antioxidant, may help to protect the body from the harsh toxins of cancer drugs. Toxins from chemotherapy decrease the body's ability to fight infection. Vitamin E may also help mitigate peripheral neuropathy, a condition that causes numbness in the hands and feet and commonly occurs during chemo treatment.


Ginger is well known as a home remedy for motion sickness and upset stomach relief, but clinical studies also show that ginger may have anti-inflammatory properties in addition to helping quell the nausea and vomiting side effects from chemotherapy.

A 2009 study funded by the National Cancer Institute showed that when taken orally and added to conventional anti-vomiting and anti-nausea medications, ginger supplements may help reduce nausea from chemotherapy treatments by up to 40 percent -- with no additional side effects.

But before you stock up on the ginger ale, make sure it's real ginger in that drink -- not ginger flavoring.


Açaí has been gaining a lot of attention lately, but how many of us really know sure what it is?

Açaí is a dark purple berry, about the size of a blueberry, and contains a very high level of antioxidants -- eleven times the amount found in apples and five times the levels in blueberries -- garnering them the No. 1 position on the "super foods" list. Their antioxidant concentration helps fight premature aging, promotes cardiovascular and digestive health and, according to some studies, aid in combating cancer.


Peppermint hard candies or peppermint tea not only taste good and relieve dry mouth, they also may help manage nausea. While the American Cancer Society (ACS) doesn't report scientific evidence that peppermint is effective in taming the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation, there does seem to be evidence that the oil does help reduce spasms in the esophagus and intestines as well as nausea after surgery.

Controlling nausea and vomiting is important not only for preventing dehydration but also for keeping up an interest in eating -- good nutrition during treatment and after surgery can help keep up energy levels, minimize weight loss and help fight infection.

Peppermint essential oils may also help reduce anxiety -- another plus while living with cancer.


Genistein is a molecule that has been shown in studies to be toxic to a variety of cancer cells. It's also found in soy, specifically in tofu, soy flour, soy protein isolates and some dietary supplements.

When taken in conjunction with chemotherapy, soy isoflavones such as genistein have shown to make chemo more efficient and work faster by helping the drugs kill tumor cells or stop those cells from dividing. In breast cancer, for example, genistein has been shown to reduce tumors by blocking the cancer-causing effect of estrogen, but in other studies has shown to encourage estrogen-dependent breast tumors -- about 70 percent of women with breast cancer have estrogen-responsive tumors.

Important: Talk to Your Doc

Depending on what type of cancer you're being treated for, it's best to discuss adding soy to your diet with your physician beforehand, as there are contradictory findings regarding its efficacy.

Beans and Legumes

Beans and other legumes such as peas and lentils are a good source of natural B vitamins while helping meet protein needs during cancer treatment. Diets high in protein encourage healing, cell repair and strengthen the immune system.

Vitamin B-complex supplements typically include thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, pyridoxine, biotin, folic acid and cobalamin. They help the body make energy, maintain healthy skin and keep the nervous, immune and digestive systems healthy. In addition, they play an important role in the production of red blood cells.

There are different schools of thought regarding B vitamins' protection against cancers and how much you'd need to consume to get that benefit; some studies have indicated that a diet high in B vitamins can reduce women's risk of breast and colorectal cancers.

Broths to Sports Drinks

Broth? Yes, but we're not just talking chicken soup. Beef broth, clear miso or any other salted vegetable broth will help keep electrolytes in balance, especially important if you're undergoing cancer treatments with vomiting or severe diarrhea as side effects.

Sipping clear liquids throughout the day also helps to prevent dehydration. Keep sports drinks, juices, water and popsicles on hand, and try to drink 8 to 12 cups of liquid each day, especially if you're experiencing diarrhea.

While drinking won't make the all the cancer treatments' side effects stop, it can help replace the fluids you're losing.


Yogurt is rich in probiotics, the "good" bacteria similar to those normally living in your intestines. Probiotics have become popular because they are thought to help keep balance in your gut -- everything from preventing vaginal yeast infections to restoring normal bowel functions (preventing diarrhea and constipation).

Many people use probiotic supplements while taking antibiotics, but cancer patients may also benefit from this friendly flora.

Probiotics have shown to be effective in preventing diarrhea and weight loss, or at least making those side effects less severe. In a 2007 study conducted by the Department of Medical Oncology at Royal Adelaide Hospital in Australia, probiotics successfully prevented these two side effects following treatment with Irinotecan, a form of chemotherapy used often with colon and rectal cancers.

In fact, many of the studies about probiotics and cancer focus specifically on colon cancer and how certain probiotics may have an effect on how enzymes in our bodies convert (or don't convert) procarcinogens into cancerous cells.

Eat Your Vegetables

Dark green, leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, Romaine lettuce and collard greens are a good source of vitamins A, E, K as well as the mineral iron. Iron is important to our red blood cells, which are responsible for making hemoglobin to carry oxygen to tissues throughout our bodies. Incorporate these leafy greens into your diet by steaming, sautéing or adding them to soups.

Not only are these greens good for you during cancer treatment, they also contain cancer-fighting nutrients such as beta-carotene, lutein, folate and phytochemicals that may also help prevent certain cancers, including breast, cervical and lung, from growing.

But greens aren't the only vegetables you'll want to stock up on. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower have shown the ability to stop cancer cells from growing, specifically in breast, endometrium, lung, color, liver and cervical cancers.

Milkshakes and Smoothies

O.K., a fat and sugar-laden milkshake a day is not recommended nutrition for cancer patients - no one's advocating fast food diet -- but adding dairy to your nutritional regime during treatment is a good way to get protein, which is essential for helping the body repair its cells and to make new ones.

And it's not just the proteins that dairy provides that are beneficial during cancer treatment. Dairy also is a good source of calcium and vitamin D, both important for skeletal health. Bone loss often occurs following chemotherapy treatment, especially in breast cancer patients who have ovarian failure with treatment, usually within 6 to 12 months. Loss of bone strength puts patients at risk for developing osteoporosis.

If milk is bothersome to you (lactose intolerant people will have bloating, cramping and diarrhea), try ready-to-drink nutritional supplements or soy alternatives instead.

For more information, see the links on the next page.



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