Using nutrition to prepare for cancer treatment

prepare for cancer treatmentIf you have run a marathon before, you know there is a good deal of training involved and you need the right kind of fuel to help you succeed. Cancer treatment is like running a marathon, so “training” and “fueling” before you start are just as important. There are two training levels to choose from as you prepare for cancer treatment. The level you choose will depend on how you are feeling prior to treatment.

“Training” Level 1

If you have been able to maintain your weight and tolerate a general diet prior to diagnosis, it is important to get the best fuel, or food, in your system to prepare you for the fight. These include lots of fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, adequate protein and probiotics:

  • Fruits and vegetables have a plethora of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals to help stimulate the immune system, slow the growth rate of cancer cells and prevent DNA damage that can lead to cancer. Healthy fats are important as cancer and its treatment place a lot of nutrition demand on the body, so you need more calories to maintain your weight.
  • While all fat is a dense source of calories, healthy fats, such as monounsaturated fat and omega-3 fatty acids, are anti-inflammatory fats. These fats help to decrease the inflammatory damage of cancer on the body. They include olive and canola oil, nuts and seeds, flax seed, fatty fish, and avocado.
  • Protein is the building block of life and is especially important during cancer to help the body repair cells and make new ones. Protein-rich foods include any animal product such as dairy, egg, fish or meat but also include plant-based foods such as nuts and seeds, beans and lentils, and soy products.
  • Lastly, cancer drugs can have a negative effect on the gastrointestinal tract and probiotics can help protect it. Fermented foods such as kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut, miso and tempeh are rich in probiotics. Strive to eat at least one probiotic rich food per day prior to and during chemotherapy.

“Training” Level 2

If you have lost considerable weight prior to treatment or are having significant symptoms that hinder your ability to eat a healthy diet, you have only one goal: to eat enough calories and protein to maintain your current body weight and prevent muscle loss.

  • Include any foods that you can tolerate in small amounts, but eat frequently to help you meet your caloric goal.
  • Focus on adding fat and protein to food to increase the calorie intake without having to increase the portion size significantly. Examples include adding sour cream and/or cheese to a small bowl of soup, using full-fat versions of any food or beverage, and focusing on high-calorie sides such as broccoli with added sauce or cheese.

While these strategies may contain additives that are not conventionally considered healthy, your first priority is to maintain your weight. If you are unable to maintain your weight you can compromise the most important system during cancer treatment, your immune system.

So, start your training plan today and know it will give you the strength for the fight ahead!

Take the next step:

  • Review our Cancer Center’s pages on preparing for chemotherapy.
  • Find ideas for preparing for radiation therapy in our Radiation Therapy Department’s patient handbook (PDF).
  • Read more from Medscape about cancer prehabilitation, an emerging method for helping patients.

U-M CCC dietitiansRegistered dietitians who are specially trained in the field of oncology nutrition provide cancer nutrition services at the Comprehensive Cancer Center. They focus on assessing the individual dietary and nutrition needs of each patient and providing practical, scientifically sound assistance.



University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer CenterThe University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center’s 1,000 doctors, nurses, care givers and researchers are united by one thought: to deliver the highest quality, compassionate care while working to conquer cancer through innovation and collaboration. The center is among the top-ranked national cancer programs, and #1 in Michigan according to U.S. News & World Report. Our multidisciplinary clinics offer one-stop access to teams of specialists for personalized treatment plans, part of the ideal patient care experience. Patients also benefit through access to promising new cancer therapies.