Eating Well When You Have Cancer



In a very recent discussion on CureTalks, a listener asked the featured cancer hematologist,

‘When my daughter was diagnosed with leukemia, I was given absolutely no advice on nutrition to follow. I did lot of research on the internet, got information through word of mouth but none from the doctors. When nutrition and diet play such an imperative role in fighting cancer, why does it remain so ignored?’

And that is the question that most cancer patients and their family would love to know the answer to – what to eat through cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Definitely, there is a lot of conflicting information out there and it is important to be able to sieve out the authentic and useful from the myriad options. Just giving a simple search on open source databases like PubMed (which I did post the show) will throw up more than 30k studies linking nutrition to cancer!!

Here, it is important to note that in the hectic schedule of saving lives, doctors may not have the time to look into nutritional aspects of individual patients so as to alleviate cancer treatment side-effects. This is by far left to the nutritionist on call at the hospital, caregivers and family of patients, your network connections, associated support groups and forums.

All patients and survivors are advised to consult a nutritionist who works with cancer patients for suggestions on diet and supplements.

Experiment a Bit!

Cancer treatment often affects a person’s eating habits and nutritional needs. The truth is eating well can be a challenge when you have cancer. And everyone is affected differently. Some people find their eating habits change only slightly, while others find that eating well is really hard. Many people are somewhere in-between. How your eating is affected will depend on the type of cancer you have and the treatments you receive. But the goal for everyone is same, to eat as well as you can and stay strong throughout your cancer treatment.

As Meera who is fighting non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma aptly described, ‘You do have to experiment a bit. What worked for your cancer buddy, may not work for you. So experiment with your food and be aware that it may not be easy for a while.’

Below are some tried and tested recommendations from cancer patients and survivors with regard to your cancer diet.

  • Eat apples, basil, and cranberries. They contain ursolic acid which acts synergistically with your DNA damaging anti-cancer therapy.
  • Increase consumption of cruciferous vegetables (radishes, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, watercress). They are rich in sulphur containing anti-cancer compounds.
  • Include papaya, pomegranate and pomegranate juice in your fruit choices.
  • Add turmeric and pepper to the spices you cook with.
  • Try to use whole grains for wheat, rice and pasta (smoothens spikes in blood glucose.)
  • Savour cooked and stewed tomatoes.
  • Avoid –
    • Excessively toasted breads and baked goods (They contain acrylamide which is potent carcinogen).
    • Highly processed foods, MSG, artificial colorings etc.
    • Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame (e.g. Diet Sodas).

What to eat with Cancer? From the Doctor’s desk.

Among some very interesting discussions I have had, ones with Dr. Donald Abrams, Chief of Hematology and Oncology, San Francisco General Hospital and Dr. Colin Campbell of The China Study fame are very relevant.

While Dr. Campbell, through his studies and books advocate a low protein diet for cancer patients and survivors, Dr. Abrams makes quite a few interesting observations and recommendations.

  • Not a fan of dairy.  He explains that most people’s bodies cannot properly digest milk and cheese since most of us are lactose intolerant, we just don’t know it!  However, butter and yogurt are OK.  Even though dairy is the most potent source of calcium, he advises patients to get their calcium from green leafy vegetables and tofu. He adds that to ensure optimum calcium absorption vitamin D supplementation is important as well.
  • Eat soy. Whole soy foods are highly recommended. This should include soybeans, soymilk, tofu, tempeh, and miso. 
  • Eat antioxidant rich foods. Patients are cautioned, not to take highly concentrated antioxidant supplements while undergoing cancer treatment. Oxygen has two molecules linked together, that’s how we breathe and that’s how we live, but whenever the oxygen molecules separate, they become free radicals; those are called reactive oxygen species which knock into our DNA doing damage, leading to aging or cancer.  Antioxidants take those free radicals out of circulation so they don’t do damage to DNA.  Now, it turns out that radiation therapy and some chemotherapy drugs works by creating free radicals of oxygen to do damage to the cancer cell’s DNA. There is a theoretical concern that taking antioxidant supplements while you are getting radiation or chemotherapeutic agents may actually diminish the effectiveness of the radiation and chemotherapy.


  • Sugar does feed cancer!  He agrees with the controversial school of thought linking sugar consumption to malignant tumor growth.  When asked, “Doctor, doesn’t any carbohydrate that you consume end up as sugar anyway?”  He acknowledges that it’s true, but pointed out that eating food high in sugar leads to steep blood sugar spikes.  He explained that this stresses your body, causes it to secrete large amounts of insulin and insulin-like growth factor, both of which promote inflammation and cause cancer cells to divide.


  • Curcumin may be beneficial. Curcumin is the active ingredient in turmeric and is recommended for cancer survivors.Curcumin in combination with piperine, which is the active ingredient in black pepper, increases the absorption of the turmeric a thousand fold.


  • Regular consumption of mushrooms recommended. This was a new one for me too! Standard common button mushrooms you can find in supermarkets are fine.  But he was referring to what he called medicinal mushrooms; varieties like shitake, reishi, cordyceps, maitake, turkey tail and oyster mushrooms.

Eating to Starve Cancer

Using nutrition to defeat cancer is not a new idea. Dr. William Li’s (head of Angiogenesis Foundation, a nonprofit that is re-conceptualizing global disease fighting) concept on anti-angiogeneis – preventing growth of blood vessels that feed a tumor, is very popular among these and his TED talk explains how.

Angiogenesis is the formation of new blood vessels and this is critical for growth and spread of cancer. Blood supply is necessary for all tumors to grow beyond a few millimeters in size. So the body’s ability to balance angiogenesis prevents blood vessels from feeding cancers. Many foods contain natural cancer-starving molecules that prevent tumors from acquiring blood vessels and these anti-angiogenic foods include fruits, herbs, and spices. Dr. Li specifies, ‘Soy, parsley, garlic, grapes, and berries’! (More anti-angiogenesis foods are listed here: Cheese is another very potent weapon against cancer according to anti-angiogeneis concept. Hard cheeses like Gouda and Edam contain a form of Vitamin K called Vitamin K2 (scientific name – menaquinone) which kills cancer cells directly. Studies prove that eating even 2 slices a day can bring down your cancer risk.

Overall cancer rates are lower in India than in the west. May be because Indians account for one sixth of world’s population!! However studies point to other factors too like, we are among the highest spice consumers in the world (spices are the most antioxidant packed class of foods); dietary factors like relatively low intake of meat, consumption of pulses like beans, chickpeas, and lentils, fresh fruits and vegetables (India is one of the largest producer and consumer of fresh fruits and vegetables) and mostly a plant-based diet (40% of Indians are vegetarians) also contribute.

So, what kind of differences will such dietary changes make? Of course, we don’t know. But each of the above recommendations is based on research results from the cancer community. However, the suggestion is that following these recommendations even to make incremental changes to our eating habits might convey some advantages in our effort to live well with cancer.

Nutrition is an indispensable part of surviving and thriving with cancer.  And all patients/survivors should take every advantage they can get! After all, information is power!


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