Most research on nutrition and cancer relates to cancer prevention because there’s no specific diet known to cure cancer. However, what you eat plays a crucial role in your ability to deal with treatment side effects and feel your best.
Avoiding fad diets and focusing on a nutritious, balanced diet is a solid strategy whether you’re trying to prevent lung cancer, undergoing treatment, or in remission. If nutrition hasn’t been a priority in the past, now is the perfect time to start caring for yourself by eating well. Here are a few pointers to move you in the right direction.
One of the most common complaints in individuals with lung cancer is fatigue. Cancer is emotionally and physically taxing, and the side effects of medications and treatments can leave you feeling exhausted. Try to eat plenty of micronutrients and macronutrients that support good energy levels.
If you don’t have much of an appetite or you’re not eating a variety of foods, nutrient deficiencies could start dragging you down. Potential micronutrient deficiencies may include:
Members of MyLungCancerTeam have shared stories of deficiencies after treatment. “I had a PET scan that showed me as cancer-free, but I felt horrible. It was a B12 deficiency. I had shots daily for a week, now weekly. It seems like a lot of people need D3 and B12 after treatment,” wrote one member.
Before trying over-the-counter supplements, ask your doctor if your symptoms could be related to a nutrient deficiency. A simple blood test should help identify deficiencies. From there, your doctor can help you find the best way to boost your levels back to the normal range.
Don’t take supplements without first communicating with your oncology team because they may interact with your medications or even make your condition worse.
Eating enough protein can be another challenge for people with lung cancer. Without sufficient protein, you can lose muscle mass. This can leave you feeling weak or unable to do things you used to do.
Eggs are one of the highest-quality sources of protein available. If omelets or scrambled eggs seem unappealing to you, consider trying cold hard-boiled eggs. You could also make fresh egg salad spread on toast or pretzels.
Other ways to get protein include:
Beans, peas, lentils, nuts, seeds, and leafy greens also contain amino acids and protein. Because these foods also have fiber, they can help prevent constipation. They’re a heart-healthy protein choice, especially for those with high cholesterol.
If you don’t feel up to eating a lot of protein-rich foods, protein shakes and supplements can help you meet your body’s needs. For example, one member of MyLungCancerTeam shared, “I could not put anything in my mouth without gagging, so that’s when I went back to drinking Ensure. The secret, I found out, is to have it really cold and shake it until it’s foamy like a milkshake. Drink it from a glass container. My favorite is butter pecan. It would fill me up and give me some nutrition at the same time.”
If you’re particularly lethargic or weak, ask your oncologist for a referral to a registered dietitian. Talking about your eating habits with a dietitian could help you brainstorm ideas and recipes to improve your nutrition. Along with changing the foods you eat, adjusting your meal schedule from three large meals to several small meals could make it easier to tolerate getting the nutrition your body needs.
If you experience a loss of appetite or are losing weight, most health care professionals will recommend against overly restricting your diet. When you have cancer, it’s sometimes more important to eat enough calories than to worry about every nutritional detail.
However, some research suggests that limiting alcohol, processed meats, and refined sugar may be beneficial for people with cancer. Complex carbohydrates like unprocessed whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and beans will lead to a slower increase in blood sugar and provide a dose of cancer-fighting antioxidants.
Minimize fast food and eating out at restaurants by grocery shopping regularly. You don’t have to be a great cook to eat simple, healthy foods from home. Easy meals and snacks like oatmeal with chopped nuts, an apple with peanut butter, a yogurt parfait with fresh fruit, or veggies with hummus or guacamole can help you save money and boost your nutrient intake.
No matter what you choose to eat, the most important thing is that your food is safe. Lung cancer treatment can suppress your immune system, making you more vulnerable to food poisoning.
Food safety basics include:
Always use clean utensils and separate cutting boards to keep raw food apart from ready-to-eat foods. A meat thermometer can help you determine if food has been cooked to the proper temperature (160 degrees for meat and 180 degrees for poultry). Be mindful of expiration dates, and avoid free food samples, deli meats, and unrefrigerated pastries that contain cream or custard.
MyLungCancerTeam is the social network for people with lung cancer and their loved ones. On MyLungCancerTeam, more than 6,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with lung cancer.
Has lung cancer affected your diet? What types of foods do you eat or avoid? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.