How to fuel your body during a cancer battle

There’s more to cancer treatment and recovery than oncology. Getting the right nutrients is an important part of the fight.

Navigating cancer is physically and emotionally draining, so it’s important to support your body’s defences as best you can.

A good nutrition plan is often a good start.

“There is substantial medical evidence that a treatment supportive and nutrient-rich diet can make a real difference to how people cope across their cancer journey,” cancer dietitian and nutritionist Jane Freeman says.

“Good nutrition, combined with exercise, will not only improve quality of life, but can help in the management of side effects and risks of recurrence and other health risks.”

Which nutrients do you need through cancer treatment?

Jane says a supportive and well-balanced diet with enough protein, carbohydrate and healthy fats can fuel the body and provide the energy and power needed to cope, function and fight.

“It is also necessary to help with the extra repair work that will be going on behind the scenes if there are surgery, treatments or side effects,” she says.

Jane recommends:

  • Lean protein foods such as fish, chicken, low-fat dairy and smaller amounts of lean red meat.
  • Plant foods including fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds, which provide key immune-supportive nutrients including iron, zinc, vitamin A, E, C, D and B6 and B12.

“These foods also provide protective food nutrients called phytonutrients,” Jane says.

“Phytochemicals are biologically active components of plants that include antioxidants and other polyphenols that help protect our cells from cancer, reduce inflammation and infection.”

The power of protein when fighting cancer

Jane says protein is particularly important when battling cancer because it is vital to build and repair body tissue.

“Inadequate protein intake can lead to a loss in muscle, weakness and immune compromise,” she says.

Jane says the daily recommended daily protein intake for people undergoing cancer treatment is 1-1.5g per kilogram of body weight.

Dietary challenges when undergoing cancer treatment

Depending on the type of cancer and treatment, getting adequate nutrients can be a challenge, says oncologist Professor Fran Boyle.

“Sometimes appetite is poor and the taste of things is altered,” she says.

“People may also find they’ve got nausea or diarrhea … or they may have mouth ulcers, which can make it hard to eat some things.”

Energy and motivation can also impact meals, Jane says.

“Many people struggle with fatigue and low mood, which can make it hard to have the energy to get out to do the food shopping and feel able to cook nourishing meals,” she says.

Jane says menu planning and having some easy or reheatable meals on standby can make it easier to get the right nutrients.

Dietary adjustments after cancer treatment

Once you’re in recovery, the dietary focus changes.

“Then you’re looking at what you could add or reduce in your diet to further support the ongoing health needs and recurrence risks,” Jane says.

“If I had to summarise a recommended dietary approach to adopt if you are well and moving on from cancer, then I would say it is best to enjoy a predominantly plant-based diet, to adjust food intakes to help you to hold a healthy weight and to be as active as you can.

“It is also recommended to avoid or reduce intakes of alcohol.”

Written by Claire Burke.