Food provides valuable nutrients for cancer patients. Eating well during cancer treatment helps to speed recovery, ease side effects, and keep the treatment plan running smoothly.
Caregiver’s Role in Nutrition
Food and food choices may be a touchy subject for your loved one. Food choices are one of the few things over which a cancer patient has control. At times, your loved one may be resistant to eating. Try to encourage your loved one to eat but don’t be too forceful. Cancer treatment is an emotionally challenging time. Don’t let disagreements over food turn into full-blown fights or arguments. Reach out to the healthcare team for support and resources.
Depending on the health of your loved one, you may need to assist with
- Grocery shopping
- Meal preparation and cooking
- Encouraging the patient to make healthy food choices
- Managing the patient’s treatment side effects.
To get started, ask the appropriate member of the healthcare team about specific foods or meal recommendations and restrictions, if any. A printed meal plan or food list is often the best approach to nutrition planning. Ask for a referral to a registered dietitian for additional help.
Nutrition for Cancer Patient
See general guidelines for cancer patients on the Food and Nutrition pages.
Malnutrition puts patients at at greater risk for health complications, hospitalization, infections, loss of muscle strength and poor quality of life. Not eating enough, not eating enough of the right foods, or the body being unable to absorb and use food properly can all cause malnutrition. To decrease the risk of malnutrition, the patient should try to avoid losing weight during treatment unless advised to do so by the healthcare team.
If you notice the signs of malnutrition, alert the healthcare team. The signs of malnutrition include
- Unintentional weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Changes in food intake
- Side effects that make eating difficult for the patient.
As the caregiver, you may be the one preparing most of the patient’s meals. The immune system is weakened during cancer treatment, so it is important to pay special attention to food safety to reduce your loved one’s risk of being exposed to potentially harmful bacteria. The following tips can reduce the risk of foodborne illness:
Keep everything clean.
- Wash hands often and thoroughly, especially before and after handling any food. Be sure to wash hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds. Pay special attention to fingernails and the backs of the hands. Encourage the patient to do the same.
- Keep raw and cooked foods separate. Do not reuse any utensils, cutting boards, plates or dishes once they have been touched by raw meat or eggs. Utensils, cutting boards, plates, and dishes, that have been used for preparing raw meats or eggs should be washed in hot, soapy water. It is best to keep one cutting board for meat and another for fruits/vegetables. Have an extra clean cutting board available for additional preparation as well.
- Disinfect all food preparation surfaces, including sinks and countertops both before and after cooking.
Cook food thoroughly.
- Avoid raw meat, such as sushi, undercooked eggs, and other meats that have not been cooked to a proper internal temperature.
- Cook all eggs until both the white and the yolk are firm. Avoid foods that may contain raw eggs, such as raw cookie dough and homemade mayonnaise.
- Use a meat thermometer to make sure that all meats are cooked to the proper internal temperature before they are eaten. Use the chart below for reference.
Avoid foods associated with foodborne illness. In addition to undercooked meat, these foods include:
- Unpasteurized beverages, such as unpasteurized juice or raw milk
- Soft mold-ripened and blue-veined cheeses, such as Brie, Camembert, Roquefort, Stilton, Gorgonzola and blue or other soft, unpasteurized cheeses
- Raw sprouts, such as alfalfa sprouts
- Well water, unless tested, filtered or boiled for 1 minute before drinking or boiled for 3 minutes before drinking in altitudes of about 2,000 meters (about 6,562 feet).
- Unwashed fruits and vegetables.
Store food safely.
- Always store food within 1 hour of purchasing or cooking or as soon as possible.
- Label food (use a marker or pen) with a “use by” date if the packaging does not have an expiration date.
- Put foods with the soonest expiration date at the front of the fridge or shelves so that you are more likely to use them.
- Discard leftovers or open packages within 1 to 4 days. If you are unsure if something is safe to eat, remember, when in doubt, throw it out.
Be careful when eating at restaurants and shopping for food.
- Buy only from trusted vendors with high grades in health department inspections.
- Avoid buying food from street vendors.
- Do not eat free food samples when shopping.
- Do not choose restaurants with buffets when eating out. If you are at a party, ask if your loved one can go through the buffet line first.
- At restaurants, ask for meat to be prepared well-done.
- If taking home leftovers, ask to bag the food yourself and make sure to refrigerate the leftovers quickly.
Food Preparation Tips
Fatigue, sensitivity to odors, and other side effects may make food preparation difficult for your loved one. As a caregiver, assisting with changes to food choices and food preparation can be a good way to help your loved one manage side effects.
Here are some tips to make food preparation easier and help your loved one to manage some of the side effects of treatment.
- Prepare small, frequent meals throughout the day.
- Ask for requests.
- Prepare food by baking, slow-cooking, grilling, or broiling to limit fat.
- Eliminate problem foods that make the patient’s side effects worse.
- Adjust spices to combat changes in taste and smell.
- Use plastic utensils if your loved one complains of a metallic taste.
- Keep aromas to a minimum by using fans or preparing cold meals.
- Use cups with lids and straws.
- Plan meals in advance and friends and family for assistance.
- Choose food and drinks carefully if your loved one experiences diarrhea.
- Avoid high-fiber, spicy, fried, and high-fat foods.
- Choose white rice, applesauce, cooked vegetables, and low-fat meat and dairy instead.
- Encourage your loved one to stay hydrated by sipping on water between meals.
- Use pictures of food to stimulate appetite if your loved one doesn’t want to eat.
- Be social during meal times to make eating more pleasant.
- Stay sitting up after meals to reduce heartburn and reflux.
Grocery Shopping Tips
A trip to the grocery store may be a tiring event for someone with cancer. Some patients may need a little help, such as a ride to the store or help carrying heavy items. For others with limited stamina and immunity, grocery shopping may not be possible. Here is where a caregiver, friends, relatives, and neighbors can really provide help. These following grocery shopping tips will make the trip easier.
- Shop with a list to stay in budget and to avoid extra trips to the store.
- Shop early in the day to avoid crowds and warmer weather that may make food spoil.
- Bring a cooler for refrigerated or frozen foods to keep foods at a safe temperature.
- Check all expiration dates, and check packaging for damages before purchasing.
- Read the label to check for any ingredients that do not fit within your loved one’s dietary restrictions.
- Grab cold foods last when shopping to keep them at a safe temperature longer.
- Use coupons from newspapers or online to save money.
- Save the receipt for budgeting purposes.
- Research food delivery and pick up services available in your area to save time.
Organic Foods. “Organic” means that the produce was grown and harvested without the addition of any pesticides or chemicals. For the word “organic” to be on a label, the product must meet certain United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)-approved guidelines. If you are interested in buying organic foods but cost is a concern, visit the Environmental Working Group website at for a list of foods that are grown with fewer pesticides as well as a list of foods grown with more pesticides. The foods grown with fewer pesticides can be bought conventionally to save money.
See the following Worksheets:
Worksheet 10: Grocery List
Worksheet 12: Food Intake and Side-Effect Log
Worksheet 13: Meal Planning
Read the PDF, Nutrition.
One-On-One Nutrition Consultations
Patients and caregivers may receive free one-on-one phone and email consultations with a registered dietitian with expertise in oncology nutrition. If you'd like more information, click here.
PearlPoint Nutrition Services℠ is offered by The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society for information purposes only. It is not intended to substitute for the advice of your healthcare team or provide medical diagnosis, treatment or therapy. Please seek the advice of your healthcare team before making any changes to your medical plan, diet or physical activity.
For more nutrition resources, tips, and recipes, visit PearlPoint Nutrition Services℠.