When going through cancer treatment, the nutritional advice from your care team can either be lacking completely or filled with ambiguity and confusion.
When you ask your doctor what to eat, they will likely say, “Eat healthy” or “Eat when you’re hungry,” which can be very vague, particularly when the medicines you may be on will distort your hunger and fullness cues as well as food cravings and aversions.
In this article, we will dive into specific foods that can give you energy, fuel your body, and leave you feeling satisfied during cancer treatment and survivorship. I am also taking an intuitive eating approach because you deserve to eat in a way that feels right for you.
My Breast Cancer Diagnosis and Eating Habits
I have struggled with my weight for as long as I can remember. Maybe that is due to my genetics, metabolism, or personality. I have tried so many diets over the years, but like most people, I have struggled to commit to them long-term. My weight has continued to fluctuate as a result of my changing eating habits.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 27, I was in what I called a “clean eating” phase, which I realized was extremely restrictive and not as “healthy” as I perceived it to be.
When I began treatment, my doctors were worried I would lose weight and told me to eat anything. Without much guidance and struggling emotionally and mentally, I turned to bread, pasta, and cookies for sustenance.
We ate the meals that were delivered to us for support, and I ended up gaining quite a bit of weight.
At the time, the weight gain was an added struggle for me in terms of body image, but I can now see that the weight gain was likely from an unbalanced diet, the impacts of the medication as well as the steroids.
The silver lining of the weight gain was that my chemotherapy side effects were not as harsh. I did not deal with vomiting or weight loss and was able to work through treatment.
Intuitive Eating Mindset for Cancer Patients
Intuitive eating principles have been around for a long time, and the authors based their writing on tons of Grade A research.
If you want to dive deep into intuitive eating, I highly suggest you check out the intuitive eating book, the 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating, as well as my nutritionist coach, hype girl Colleen, who makes the intuitive eating content super accessible and practices for people on a healing food journey.
These have been some of the biggest mindset shifts for me with intuitive eating that I think can be applied to cancer patients and the survivorship phase.
Get to know your hunger and fullness cues
This hunger scale document is immensely helpful in understanding what levels of hunger/fullness feel like.
During cancer treatment, keep in mind these signals may be distorted or suppressed in your body so you will want to plan for regular meals and snacks even if you don’t have the signs to ensure you stay energized.
No foods are off-limits
There is a lot of fear-mongering in the cancer community and online. Intuitive eating encourages a neutral mindset about food.
No food is bad or good, it’s about learning what foods do for your body and how they make you feel.
If one day you crave a good one, but also be mindful that you may need some protein later on to rebuild energy when the carbohydrates and sugar energy wears off.
Think about adding in food and nutrients instead of restricting
It can be a very slippery slope when you start restricting particular foods or food groups. Make it a goal to add more fruits and vegetables to your meals daily, or many aim to drink more water or consume hydrating foods like soups, broths, or fruits.
Take the focus off of your weight
While you may be weighed regularly at the doctor’s, you can ask to skip that unless your chemotherapy or medication has specific dosing based on your weight.
Instead, focus on healthy behaviors and habits that make you feel good.
Resist the diet culture
This is particularly important during this time of your life with cancer because diet culture can seem like a way to exert control and solve many of the challenges you are facing.
People will claim everything from keto curing cancer to avocados causing cancer. Know that any of these restrictive plans and approaches focused on your weight and what you can and can’t eat are just another form of diet culture, and it’s been proven to be ineffective, and weight does not equate with health.
Foster self-compassion for your mental health and body image
Going through cancer does a number on your body image, and weight and eating are tied up in that.
This is a wonderful time to dedicate yourself to self-compassion work and get the support you need for your mental health.
Make a list of foods that make you happy
Some of these foods may have nutritional value, and others may not. That is ok. Keep this list handy so you can include some of these foods in your meals when you are physically hungry.
This is a great way to keep an element of enjoyment and satisfaction in your diet when chemotherapy and treatment may suppress your appetite or lead to food aversions.
Foods to Eat During Cancer Treatment
So what kind of foods should you be eating while in cancer treatment? These are some of the tips I use for approaching nutrition during and after cancer.
Aim for a Balanced Plate
You probably have some sense of the importance of protein, but during cancer treatment, protein is even more important for your energy and healing. When you can pair protein with a carbohydrate, fiber, and healthy fat, it will have a great impact on your body for satisfaction, energy, and fullness. This video perfectly explains this concept in a fun way.
High Protein Food Ideas
- Greek yogurt
- Smoked salmon
- Cooked salmon
- Lean turkey
- Grilled chicken
- String Cheese
Keep in mind these are just recommendations, and it’s absolutely ok if every meal doesn’t have a perfect balance of protein, carbs, fiber, and fat. This is just a guideline to help you combine foods that bring your body energy and fuel.
Hydration during cancer treatment is super important to flush toxins out of your body. Normally, your body does this process on its own, but when you are taking additional chemicals such as chemo, you need additional forms of hydration and fluids.
Get creative with your fluid intake, it doesn’t have just to be water. Bone broth is a great idea, soups and even hydrating fruits like watermelon. Don’t love guzzling water? Try adding fruit or herbs to your water to make it more interesting. I am obsessed with Nuun electrolyte water tablets, and the strawberry lemonade flavor is delicious!
Add in Vegetables & Healing Ingredients
Not only are vegetables healing for your body, but they help you feel full longer and help with your balanced plate approach. Dark leafy greens are particularly nutritious for your body and protein, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Since constipation is common during chemotherapy and as a side effect of anesthesia, consider high-fiber foods as a well to aid digestion. Other ingredients like peppermint and ginger can be incorporated into recipes to fight nausea.
Limit Red Meat and Alcohol
These are two of the only data-based food/diet recommendations for cancer patients, and even these recommendations can be interpreted in multiple ways. You can dig into the studies about the recommendations for cancer risk reduction by limiting red meat. When it comes to alcohol and cancer, Dr. Teplinsky is a trusted oncologist and content creator who explains more about alcohol and cancer risk in this video.
These recommendations do not mean you have to stop consuming these two items completely but it would be wise to reflect on your consumption and use moderation if you are a cancer survivor or looking to reduce your cancer risk.
Create Habits of Joyful Movement
It has also now been proven that short bursts of energy can reduce your risk of cancer as shown in this JAMA article and explained by Dr. Teplinsky. Making movement a part of your life can be an important healthy behavior to help your physical healing and mental health.
My integrated medicine provider gave me the idea of creating an exercise menu with varying levels of exertion. This was helpful for me during chemotherapy and the year following. When I was in pain, exhausted, or just plain busy, I could choose a quick/low-energy activity from the menu and still meet my daily activity goal.
Start your own joyful movement menu today. This is another way to show your body love as it heals from treatment.
Easy Meal Ideas for Cancer Patients
Now that we’ve gone over the mindset tips, the guidelines, and some nutritional tips, let’s dig into some delicious meal ideas to fuel your body, combat side effects, and help you navigate this difficult period in your life.
- Breakfast: Chike Protein Shake with added oatmeal – Mycancerchic10 for 10% OFF
- Lunch: Grilled chicken salad with mixed greens, avocado, and balsamic dressing
- Breakfast: Overnight Oats
- Lunch: Turkey and cheese wrap with hummus and veggies
- Dinner: Crock Pot Chicken Taco Chili
- Breakfast: Kodiak Protein Muffins
- Lunch: Quinoa and black bean burrito bowl with salsa and guacamole
- Dinner: Buffalo Chicken Wrap
- Breakfast: Protein smoothie with spinach, banana, almond milk, and protein powder
- Lunch: Greek yogurt dip with vegetables
- Dinner: Honey Balsamic Grilled Chicken & Vegetables
- Breakfast: Whole grain waffles with fresh berries and Greek yogurt
- Lunch: Tuna salad sandwich on whole grain bread with carrot sticks
- Dinner: Chicken Kale Gnocchi
- Breakfast: Veggie omelette with whole wheat toast
- Lunch: Warm French Lentil Salad with Bacon & Herbs
- Dinner: Cheesy Jalapeño Chicken Skillet with “Rice”
- Breakfast: Roasted Vegetable Egg Scramble with cheese
- Lunch: Caprese salad with whole grain crackers on the side
- Dinner: Turkey Meatloaf
Many of my recipes are adapted from Skinnytaste.com, which is a wonderful resource. I have linked a few of my favorites. Please comment below if you want more information on any particular item/meal.
Sample Weekly Meal Plan
Download my sample weekly meal plan or fill out the printable one on your own! The key is to make a plan, listen to your body and adjust accordingly. Don’t forget that preparing meals ahead of time can save you energy during treatment!
Exercise & Intuitive Eating
In addition to eating well, I make a very conscious effort to work out or move my body at least 30 minutes 5-6 days a week. My integrated medicine provider gave me the awesome idea of creating an exercise menu with varying levels of activities.
This has been awesome for me because even on days when I am in pain, exhausted, or just plain busy, I can choose a quick/low-energy activity from the menu and still meet my activity goal for the day.
I focus on doing joyful movement, types of exercise and fitness that fuel my soul and make my body feel good. In the past that has been healing exercise programs for cancer survivors like Livestrong, group or fitness classes. Right now I LOVE reformer pilates and walking. Never underestimate the power of walking for your physical and mental health.
I am sending you lots of love and encouragement as you set out on your health journey.
The most important thing to remember is that each person is different, and what works for me may not be what works best for you. Eating well and exercising are proven to be effective for everyone, though, so talk to your doctor to determine how you can incorporate healthy eating and exercise into your life! I am sending you lots of love and encouragement as you set out on your health journey.