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.
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 cancers.
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.
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.
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 and turmeric;
- 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
- 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
- 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 flaxseeds;
- 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 deficiency);
- 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 produce.
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 go organic.
For more information on pesticides in produce, visit the Environmental Working Group's Shopper's Guide.