19 March 2012

Proper diet important for cancer patients

When someone gets a diagnosis of cancer, radiation therapy or chemotherapy usually follows. But there is another measure that cancer patients should not underestimate, proper diet.


When someone gets a diagnosis of cancer, radiation therapy or chemotherapy usually follows. But there is another measure that cancer patients should not underestimate - the proper diet.

"When it comes to cancer, in particular, it's very important that the body remain strong and fit," remarked Martin Strauch, a Munich-based internist and gastroenterologist.

He said that two factors tended to weaken the body of cancer patients over time: "The spreading cancer weakens the body's defences, and the therapy, too, is debilitating." It is therefore important to keep the body fit by eating properly, he pointed out.

This is easier said than done, however, because people battling cancer often have no appetite or suffers from nausea. They should nevertheless try to eat sufficiently, said Richard Raedsch, a head physician at St Josef's Hospital in Wiesbaden, Germany who specialises in nutritional medicine, gastroenterology and herpetology. Otherwise cancer patients can become susceptible to infections or not tolerate the chemotherapy well.

Eat and drink what you want

Strauch advises cancer patients to eat and drink what they want. "No matter what the food, it supplies the body with energy and at the same time promotes general well-being and retention of the quality of life," he said.

Raedsch recommends a "high-kilojoule, balanced diet," the high kilojoules being aimed at keeping the body from losing too much weight during therapy. "And balanced means a sufficient intake of vitamins and trace elements, and not drinking too much alcohol, for example."

Beyond that, there are rudimentary diets specifically for cancer patients, although "you can't cure cancer with food," stressed dietician Gisela Krause-Fabricius.

"You can, however, outwit the cancer cells, as it were," Krause-Fabricius said, noting that cancer cells altered the body's metabolism and used mainly sugar for their own energy needs. "By contrast, they use fat only to a slight degree."

Don’t starve cancer cells

Her advice: "Eat as much fat as possible and little sugar. The cancer cells will then have trouble getting the energy they need for their growth. In addition, more protein is required for metabolism than in a healthy person."

Cancer cells cannot be starved to death in this way, Krause-Fabricius said, but the body's strength can be stabilised or improved. She said it was important to ingest the right kind of fat, such as that in fish, linseed oil, butter and cream. Sweets and foods containing bleached flour should be largely avoided. Following these guidelines will help the body retain muscle mass and weight longer, she said.

Many cancer patients often do not feel like eating, though, because "their sense of smell and taste can change, whether due to the chemotherapy, the radiation therapy or the tumour itself," said Krause-Fabricius, who worked for years in an oncology office.

Strauch said that cancer patients whose symptoms include diarrhoea or vomiting should drink a lot to replace lost fluids and salts.

Patients unable to tolerate a particular food could "try it in a different form," Krause-Fabricius said. If fresh fruit does not go down well, for instance, stewed fruit or fruit smoothies might be better. And if raw salads and vegetables cause diarrhoea, steamed or sauteed vegetables are perhaps easier to stomach. (Sapa, March 2012) 

Read more:


Diet and Nutrition


Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Ask the Expert

Cancer expert

CANSA’s purpose is to lead the fight against cancer in South Africa. Its mission is to be the preferred non-profit organisation that enables research, educates the public and provides support to all people affected by cancer. Questions are answered by CANSA’s Head of Health Professor Michael Herbst. For more information, visit

Still have a question?

Get free advice from our panel of experts

The information provided does not constitute a diagnosis of your condition. You should consult a medical practitioner or other appropriate health care professional for a physical exmanication, diagnosis and formal advice. Health24 and the expert accept no responsibility or liability for any damage or personal harm you may suffer resulting from making use of this content.

* You must accept our condition

Forum Rules