Nutrition is an essential part of both a cancer prevention and cancer therapy wellness plan.
Cancer is a major global health concern. There are many different types of cancer, all of which refer to a state in which abnormal cells grow and spread in an uncontrolled manner. An estimated 1,1735,350 new cancer diagnoses and 609,640 cancer deaths are expected in the United States in 2018.1
Genes alone don’t determine your risk for cancer. The environment also plays a role by causing what is called epigenetic changes. This means that your environment can change how your genes are expressed. For example, engaging in regular physical activity, eating foods rich in anti-oxidants, sleeping well, and managing stress help your body turn off gene expressions that may otherwise cause disease. The opposite is true, too. Eating a poor diet that’s high in sugar and low in micronutrients (think anti-oxidants, vitamins, minerals), experiencing chronic stress, being exposed to harmful chemicals, smoking cigarettes, and partaking in little physical activity, tell your body to turn on genes that may lead to chronic disease. The good thing is that epigenetic changes aren’t permanent. So even if you haven’t been eating well and living a healthy lifestyle, the positive changes you make today can support your overall wellness.2
DIETARY THERAPY FOR CANCER PREVENTION & CANCER TREATMENT
Eating to prevent cancer and eating to thrive through cancer therapy are two different nutritional approaches. While both share the underlying principle of providing nutrients and supporting the body, the goals of each differ.
A cancer prevention diet is one that focuses on foods rich in compounds that have anti-cancer properties. When you eat for cancer prevention, these active compounds such as anti-oxidants talk to your cells to keep them healthy3,4 and reduce inflammation. This is important because chronic inflammation, which may result from poor diet and lifestyle habits (e.g. excess sugar, insufficient sleep, tobacco smoke, chronic infections) is involved in the development and progression of cancer.5-8
A colorful, whole-foods based diet will help ensure that your body has the nutrients it needs to best counteract the everyday stressors that promote cancer development—for example, the secondhand cigarette smoke you just inhaled because someone next to you at the bus station lit a cigarette or the physiological stress you experienced after staying up late to meet a work deadline. The reality is that you live in the real world and there is no way to completely eliminate harmful exposures that increase cancer risk. However, the goal is to minimize the harmful exposures within your control, and maximize healthy cancer-preventative eating and lifestyle practices to achieve optimal health.
On the other hand, a therapeutic diet for cancer includes unique aspects to support health through cancer treatment (e.g. chemotherapy, radiation, immunotherapy). Nutrition-related challenges during cancer therapy include poor appetite, difficulty swallowing, altered taste and smell, nausea, vomiting, weight loss or weight gain, fatigue,9 constipation, and diarrhea.10,11 Since many of the side effects of cancer therapy involve gastrointestinal symptoms that might make it difficult to eat, eating nutrient-dense foods is essential.
A diet that is high in protein and calories may support your efforts to maintain your weight, heal, and reduce fatigue. Protein is especially important if you have wounds or had surgery because they help with the healing process.11,12 High-fat foods, however, are more difficult to digest, so they remain in your stomach longer, increasing the occurrence of poor appetite. Therefore, they are best avoided. And eating small, frequent meals throughout the day may help you overcome the challenges of not being able to consume large quantities of food at one time.11
In addition, since cancer therapy lowers your resistance to infection,13,14 certain safety precautions must be taken to minimize the risk of infections and foodborne illnesses. In some cases, your doctor may instruct you to avoid eating raw fruits and vegetables, raw honey, cold cuts and processed meats, and unpasteurized food items.11
Some food safety guidelines include the following:11
- Keep your kitchen clean
- Clean kitchen surfaces with paper towels or clean cloths instead of sponges
- Wash your hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds before and after preparing food
- Before preparing each food item, wash your cutting boards, dishes, and utensils with soap and hot water; repeat this process for each food item you prepare
- Wash fruits and vegetables before eating them, including those for which you discard the skin
- Separate raw foods (e.g. raw poultry, meat, fish) from other foods in your grocery cart, shopping bags, and refrigerator
- Shop for non-perishable goods first so that perishables are placed in your cart shortly before checkout
- Have two cutting boards—one for fresh produce and one for raw poultry, meat, and fish
- Refrigerate or freeze poultry, meat, fish, eggs, and all perishable foods immediately after arriving home from the grocery store
- Use an insulated shopping bag and/or ice packs to transport highly perishable goods (e.g. meats, dairy) from the grocery store to your home
- Keep the refrigerator temperature constant at 40° F (4.4° C) or below and the freezer at 0° F (-17.8° C) or below
- Thaw foods in the refrigerator, not on the countertop at room temperature
- Cool cooked foods in the refrigerator, not on the countertop at room temperature
- Cook foods to their proper internal temperatures
The minimum safe internal food temperatures are as follows:15
Thus, there are a number of nutrition-related concerns to address when undergoing cancer therapy. For anyone receiving cancer therapy, it’s advisable to meet with a nutritionist (many healthcare teams and cancer centers have this service available) to discuss your specific concerns and develop a personalized eating plan. You’re not alone and there are many resources to support you on your journey.
Now that you have an understanding of how cancer prevention and cancer therapy diets differ, let’s dive into some specific foods that support each way of eating. These are not exclusive lists, but rather food highlights accompanied by recipes to get you started on your respective eating pattern. There is some overlap, too. For example, some of the nutrient-dense foods that support cancer therapy are beneficial to individuals looking for an anti-cancer eating style. Individuals receiving cancer therapy may tolerate some of the nutrient-rich foods that are part of a cancer prevention diet. However, these typically are not focused on supporting the unique needs (e.g. nausea, diarrhea, wound healing, infection control) of individuals receiving cancer therapy. While they are healthy for individuals looking to prevent cancer, they may worsen the conditions experienced by individuals receiving cancer therapy. For example, spices and onions contain healthy compounds that are part of a cancer prevention diet,16 but these foods often exacerbate nutrition-related symptoms in individuals receiving cancer therapy. And raw shellfish and raw fruits and vegetables may be contraindicated.11
The key is to work with your healthcare team to develop an individualized eating style that supports your current state of health.
CANCER PREVENTION DIET
Some foods that you might include as part of a cancer prevention diet include cranberries, pumpkin, tomatoes, and turmeric.
It’s time to fall in love with these tart red pearls! Cranberries contain bioactive compounds (e.g. anthocyanins, procyanidins, flavonols) that give them their cancer-protective properties. 17-19 Among their many actions, the anti-cancer compounds in cranberries promote cancer cell death, inhibit cancer cell growth, and counter inflammation and reactive oxygen species17,19 (think of rust on a bicycle chain . . . this is similar to what reactive oxygen species do to your body). Research shows that the bioactive compounds in cranberries protect against a variety of cancers, including lymphoma, and esophagus, stomach, colon, and bladder cancers.17-19
Juicy tidbit: The deep red pigment in cranberries comes from anthocyanins!20,21
Try these recipes to rekindle your love for cranberries:
Harvest Cranberry Sauce with Orange Zest (low-sugar)
Cranberry Orange Wild Salmon (dairy-free, grain-free, gluten-free)
Whether pumpkin makes you think of ghoulish Halloween stories, odd-looking gourds, or brisk November days, it’s time to give pumpkin the superhero status it deserves! Pumpkin contains a type of carotenoid called beta-carotene.22 This is a form of provitamin A, which means that it can be converted into active vitamin A.23 Beta-carotene has anti-oxidant properties and gives pumpkin its orange color.24 And research shows that beta-carotene, along with other carotenoids, is protective against cancer due to its ability to promote cancer cell death, inhibit the growth of malignant tumors, and stimulate the immune system’s natural defense mechanisms.25 In particular, carotenoids are associated with reduced risk of cervical, ovarian, breast, colon,24,25 lung, and stomach cancers.26
Caution: Smokers should not consume beta-carotene supplements, as doing so can increase their risk of lung cancer.
Juicy tidbit: According to the biological definition of a berry, pumpkin is actually a type of berry because it contains seeds and pulp.27
Try these recipes to rekindle your love for pumpkin:
Pumpkin Curry Sage Soup (dairy-free, grain-free, gluten-free)
Pumpkin Pie (dairy-free, grain-free, gluten-free, low-sugar)
It’s time to show your love for tomatoes! A compound called lycopene gives many fruits and vegetables their pink and red color—including tomatoes. Lycopene is a non-provitamin A carotenoid. Interestingly, processed forms of tomato such as tomato sauce contain higher amounts of lycopene than do fresh tomatoes.28,29 Lycopene (along with vitamin C in tomatoes) has anti-oxidant properties that contribute to the cancer-protective qualities of tomatoes. This is important because anti-oxidants neutralize those harmful excess reactive oxygen species we discussed above, which may contribute to the development of cancer.28 While research has produced mixed results, it’s suggested that lycopene in tomatoes may reduce the risk of prostate,29,30 breast,28,29 lung, ovarian, gastric, and colorectal cancers.29
Juicy tidbit: Combining cooked tomatoes with a dietary fat such as extra-virgin olive oil increases your body’s ability to absorb lycopene.31
Try these recipes to rekindle your love for tomatoes:
Lasagna (dairy-free, grain-free, gluten-free)
Get ready to shine with this yellow spice that imparts a yellow hue to curry.32 You’ve probably passed the fresh root in the grocery store, judging from its gnarly look that you wouldn’t care for its taste. Let me remind you, friend, looks can be deceiving. Beneath the brown, rugged skin of turmeric root is a gold mine of health properties. Curcumin is a polyphenol that is the bioactive compound that gives turmeric its health benefits, including anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer properties.33
In particular, research demonstrates that curcumin protects against cancer in multiple ways. These involve promoting cancer cell death and normalizing cell division. Curcumin’s other cancer-protective activities include preventing tumor growth, angiogenesis (this is the process that develops the blood vessels that cells, including cancer cells, need to survive), and metastasis (this refers to the spreading of cancer to a different part of the body).32-34 In addition, curcumin helps neutralize those reactive oxygen species we discussed earlier and decrease inflammation that promotes the development of cancer.35
Many of these effects are due to curcumin’s anti-oxidant32 and epigenetic (pop quiz: Do you remember what this term means? Hint: reread the beginning of this article) activities.36 Some of the cancers for which curcumin shows promise for protecting against include breast,34 pancreatic,33 and respiratory and digestive tract cancers. Curcumin may also protect against leukemia, melanoma, and gynecological and genitourinary tumors.32 Research is still evolving. And the anti-cancer effects of curcumin may be limited by your body’s ability to absorb the curcumin that you ingest. This is because curcumin has a hard time dissolving in water (there’s a lot of water in your body!).33,37
Juicy tidbit: Researchers have developed nanocurcumin as a way to increase the body’s ability to absorb curcumin. This is a fancy way of saying that curcumin is snuggled inside very small balls. On the inside, the curcumin remains protected from water. However, the outside of the ball contains compounds that make it easy for your body to absorb.38-40 If you’re in the kitchen and looking to enhance the absorbability of the curcumin in the turmeric you eat, a good way to do so is to include some black pepper in the dish. Black pepper contains piperine, which helps increase your body’s ability to absorb curcumin.41,42
Try these recipes to rekindle your love for turmeric:
Anti-Inflammatory Golden Turmeric Milk (dairy-free, low-sugar)
Pumpkin Curry Sage Soup (dairy-free, grain-free, gluten-free)
Zesty Heart Healthy Salad Dressing (dairy-free, gluten-free)
CANCER THERAPY DIET
Some foods that you might include as part of a cancer therapy diet include bone broth and chicken.
Maintaining proper hydration during cancer therapy is essential. And sipping bone broth is a gentle, nutrient-dense, palatable way to do so. This helps prevent dehydration that may result from nausea,43 vomiting,43,44 and diarrhea.44 And maintaining proper hydration by sipping bone broth will help minimize the occurrence of fatigue45 and constipation caused by dehydration.46
Caution: There are concerns about heavy metals (e.g. lead and cadmium) in bone broth due to trace amounts of these metals that are found in animal bones.47,48 While research indicates the amounts are minimal,48 it is always advisable to consume broth made from quality-sourced bones (e.g. bones from pasture-raised, organic chickens). You can purchase quality bones online. Making your own bone broth allows you to control the quality of the ingredients. You may want to ask a friend or family member to make homemade bone broth for you since the cooking process emits a strong smell (strong smells may worsen nausea). If you purchase ready-made bone broth, be sure to research the company and the ingredients used. This is one of my favorite purveyors of ready-made bone broths.
Juicy tidbit: Bone broth contains an amino acid called glycine. And glycine helps increase your body’s ability to produce stomach acid49, which is needed to digest food,50,51 absorb certain nutrients (e.g. beta-carotene and food-based vitamin B12),52 and protect against pathogenic microorganisms. 53,54 Therefore, sipping bone broth may improve your digestion, nutrient status, and ability to fight off infections.
Try this recipe to rekindle your love for bone broth:
Chicken is a complete source of protein and has a mild flavor that you might find you tolerate well if you’re experiencing gastrointestinal side effects from cancer therapy. During cancer therapy, your body has unique needs to support the healing process. Therefore, consuming enough protein is essential for these repair processes.9
Specifically, protein helps prevent cancer-related muscle loss and poor energy intake, which contribute to a wasting syndrome called cancer cachexia.55,56,57 This is significant because cancer cachexia can contribute to additional health issues such as poor quality of life and surgical outcomes, decreased tolerance of cancer therapy, increased risk of chemotherapy toxicity, and physical impairments. Nevertheless, consuming enough protein helps maintain muscle mass, which reduces the chance of experiencing cancer-related fatigue.58 And when combined with ginger, research shows that protein may decrease the occurrence of delayed nausea and the need for anti-nausea drugs.43
Just like the quality of the bones you use to make bone broth is important, try to consume the highest quality chicken possible (e.g. pasture-raised, organic). You can purchase quality chicken online, or from your local health-conscious grocery store or farmer.
Juicy tidbit: Protein is composed of amino acids. In essence, each amino acid functions like a Lego. Your body puts different amino acids together to build proteins.56,59 And then your body uses proteins to build structural components of the body such as muscles and tissues. In addition, proteins help make hormones, enzymes, and hemoglobin. When your body needs extra energy—for example, if you don’t consume enough energy from food during cancer therapy—your body can breakdown its own proteins (e.g. muscle) to produce energy. So if you don’t eat enough protein, muscle loss may occur.59
Try this recipe to rekindle your love for chicken:
Are you hungry for more cancer therapy recipes?
Eating to help prevent cancer and eating to support health while undergoing cancer therapy require different nutritional approaches. Healthy foods differ for individuals based on their current health status. While a cancer prevention diet includes a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, a cancer therapy diet focuses on helping individuals consume the energy and nutrients they need to feel their best and support the healing process. Regardless, nutrient-dense foods are the pillars of both diets.
Note: Each individual experiences cancer therapy differently, requires different nutrients, and may need to avoid certain foods. The information herein is not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any condition, nor is it intended to be a prescriptive diet. It is for educational purposes only. Always consult your doctor before starting a new supplement, herb, diet, or other intervention.
Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. KalenaSpire only joins affiliate programs for products that Christine believes in and sincerely endorses for quality and efficacy.
What are your favorite foods to support cancer prevention and cancer therapy? Share in the comments below!
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