Thursday 22 February 2018

What to eat when you have cancer

Arlene Harris

Cancer is a truly awful disease and while survival rates are improving year after year, there is no getting away from the fact that the treatment can be very gruelling and much of the medication can leave patients feeling nauseous, tired and listless.

But as with every aspect of our physical health, maintaining a good diet is crucial, particularly as the body needs plenty of nourishment in order to fight the enormous battle between medicine and cancer cells.

Naomi Fitzgibbon is the Nurseline manager with the Irish Cancer Society. She says while every case is individual, all cancer patients should do their utmost to eat a balanced diet.

“Diet is very important in the management of cancer,” she says. “People need to eat well and ensure they have all the main food groups in their daily diet as they need to be able to fight off infection and have the physical strength to be able for treatment.

“There are so many different types of cancer and so many stages so there isn’t one piece of advice which fits all — some people may need to eat lots of extra calories in the form of butter and cream and all the things they may previously have avoided, some may just need to keep up a good balanced diet while others may not be able to eat and will have to be fed through a tube. But the one thing they all have in common is that food — as in calories and nutrition — is very important.”

Side effects of chemotherapy and other cancer treatments vary but some people find their digestive system is affected, while others may experience nausea, constipation and or diarrhoea.

“People with cancer of the bowel, stomach, oesophagus and other organs in that area will often have to radically change their diet,” says the specialist nurse. “They may have to avoid fatty or spicy food and anything carbonated.

“Others may become constipated or have severe diarrhoea and food is the last thing on their minds, but it is vital that they eat properly so I would advise people who are feeling unwell to speak to their medical team who will be able to adjust medication which will help relieve these symptoms.”

Read more: 15 myths about cancer

Dieticians and oncologists will work together to find the most suitable plan for each person. But Fitzgibbon says if at any time, anyone is struggling, there is always someone there to help.

“Our helpline is open daily and specialist nurses are always available to offer advice,” she says. “We also have a very good book entitled Diet and Cancer which has dietary information specific to all the different types of the disease — this is free of charge and can be ordered by calling 1800 200 300.

“Some people go on juicing diets, others give up wheat or dairy and there is always someone who has a new diet which they claim offers a cure to cancer, but there is currently no scientific evidence to support any of these.

“Eating well is crucial in every aspect of life, particularly for a cancer patient so my advice would be to continue with a well-balanced, healthy diet unless a specialist cancer dietician advises otherwise.”

Bernadette Bohan has been through cancer twice — once at the age of 33 and again 12 years later. After her second diagnosis, she decided to change her diet and began juicing. In the past 15 years, she has written five books and has a blog ( offering advice and tips to her readers. She believes juicing is the way to a healthier life. 

Read more: Cervical Cancer: 'My dad's sister had died of the same cancer when she was in her mid 30s - and now it felt like it was my turn'

“Juicing is my number one way of improving health and turbo-charging the immune system,” she says. “If you are looking for a quick pick-me-up to overcome fatigue, juicing will give you a new lease of life.

“I eat a predominantly plant-based diet and steer clear of animal products as Dr Colin T Campbell of Cornell University reports that most cancers are preventable and most heart-related conditions of arterial blockage and type 2 diabetes can be corrected by simply switching to a plant-based diet.

“Prevention is always better than cure — it’s cheaper, more effective and there is no risk involved. Once you become open to nutritional healing, it opens you up to a world of alternatives. If you emphasise preventative health care, you could reduce your risk of contracting various health problems.”

Read more: Everything you wanted to know about cancer but were too afraid to ask

The mother-of-two says education is the key as it provides us with the knowledge and the know-how to influence life for the better. “I am a massive believer in giving people information so they can make better decisions,” she says. “It’s so important that people take responsibility for their own health — researching, listening to all sides of an argument and then making informed decisions.

“When people are told what to do, they will do it for a while, but when they know why they are doing something, it leads to lasting change. True health must be earned; there are no magic pills or cures which can replace the wonderful foods which nature has given to us.”


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