What Should I Eat?

Your body converts food into energy. This food energy is measured in kilocalories or calories. It's labelled as kcal/kilocalories on food packaging. Everyone needs a certain number of calories each day to fuel their body for energy, growth and repair. You need energy even if you're not very physically active.
Throughout the phases of cancer treatment and recovery, it's important to adapt what you eat to cope with your body’s changing nutritional needs. Here's a summary of the key nutritional needs in each phase.

Phase 1: Cancer treatment

  • You may need more energy (calories). Eat small, frequent meals or snacks, rather than three large meals a day.
  • If you start to lose weight, try eating extra nutritious snacks or drinks.
  • If possible, do some light physical activity, such as walking, to improve appetite, reduce fatigue, help digestion and prevent constipation.
  • Check with your doctor or dietitian if you want to take vitamin or herbal supplements.

Phase 2: Recovering from treatment

  • Continue to follow all the tips in Phase 1 for weeks or even a month or two following treatment. Nutritional needs remain high following treatment, and will differ depending on your cancer type and the treatment you’ve had. Your doctor or dietitian can advise you on your individual needs during this time.
  • It's important to maintain your weight during this time to ensure your recovery from treatment is as quick as possible.
  • It's important to eat a variety of food and to do some physical activity, as you’re able, in order to rebuild muscles and recover from the side effects of treatment.
  • If you're still experiencing treatment related side effects, your dietitian can advise you during this time.

Phase 3 – Preventing cancer recurrence and new cancers

  • Once you’ve recovered from the side effects of treatment and you’re eating well and physically active, you can switch the focus of nutrition to healthy eating.
  • Healthy eating, maintaining a healthy weight and being physically active can help to lower the chance of cancer coming back.
  • Eating plenty of fruit and vegetables may lower the risk of developing some cancers. Try to eat at least two serves of fruit and five serves of vegetables every day.
  • See your doctor for regular check-ups.
  • Visit NCSM’s in-house dietitian for nutritional advice.

Living with advanced cancer

  • Good nutrition can help to maintain quality of life.
  • You may need to adjust your food choices and eating patterns to meet changing nutritional needs.
  • Medications and physical activity can boost appetite. Talk to your doctor about suitable options for your situation.
  • Nutrition supplements may help if you can’t eat enough. Talk to your doctor, palliative care specialist or dietitian.
There are many different types of cancer and many different causes of cancer, only some of which are understood. Cancer starts when cells begin to grow out of control. The reason for this change is unknown but lifestyle and diet can sometimes play a part.
It's unlikely that any one food or food additive is to blame. It's more likely that poor eating habits combined with other lifestyle factors, such as smoking, too little exercise, being overweight and having too much sunlight exposure may, over a long period of time, increase the risk of developing some cancers.
There's no evidence to prove that eating certain food can cure cancer. Be wary of advice that eliminates many types of food or whole food groups from your diet. Following this advice can negatively impact on your ability to cope with treatment and maintain daily activities. Eating a wide variety of food helps to ensure you get all the nutrients you need. Always discuss changes to your diet with your dietitian or doctor.
Cancer doesn't grow from eating too much food. Some people think that fasting is a good treatment for cancer but there’s no evidence to support this. Lack of food can leave you feeling weak and affect your ability to cope with treatment. The important thing is to try and eat a wide variety of food, and enough to meet your body’s needs.
Reviewed By:
Jenelle Loeliger, Head - Nutrition Department, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Kate Aigner, Cancer Information Consultant, Cancer Council Helpline ACT; Ian Anderson, Consumer; Anna Boltong, PhD Candidate (Dietitian), Department of Cancer Experiences Research, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Clare Hughes, Nutrition Program Manager, Cancer Council NSW; Bridget Kehoe, Public Health Coordinator (Nutrition and Physical Activity), Cancer Council QLD; Steve Pratt, Nutrition and Physical Activity Manager, Cancer Council WA; and Roswitha Stegmann, Helpline Nurse, Cancer Council WA.
Reviewed By:
Chan Wan Thung, dietitian, NCSM.