Nutrition tips for cancer survivors

Nutrition tips for cancer survivors


Updated 7/7/2023


Food can aid in healing, recovery and overall wellness after active cancer treatment


By Vicki Barber, Registered Dietitian, Oncology Nutrition Specialist, Nuvance Health


Vicki Barber, Registered Dietitian, Oncology Nutrition Specialist, Nuvance Health


Nutrition can play a key role in reducing cancer risk and supporting your body during cancer treatment. Nutrition can also be a valuable tool during cancer survivorship. A healthy diet — combined with exercise and weight management — may help reduce your risk of cancer recurrence and improve your quality of life.


Learn more about Nuvance Health Cancer Institute’s supportive care services including nutrition.


What is the role of nutrition after active cancer treatment ends?

People may have
surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy to treat cancer. These are active treatments to eliminate cancer. Then, they may have maintenance therapies to reduce the risk of cancer recurrence, such as oral medications or infusions.


At Nuvance Health, we encourage cancer patients to meet with a registered dietitian who specializes in oncology during treatment so they feel prepared to continue a healthy diet and lifestyle after active treatment ends.

Related content: Where to get help during cancer treatment and survivorship 


Following a healthy nutritional plan after completing active treatment for cancer can:

  • Lower the risk of the same cancer coming back
  • Lower the risk of developing a new cancer
  • Lower the risk of other chronic diseases such as heart disease
  • Promote healing and overall wellness


How does diet influence the risk of cancer recurrence?

After active cancer treatment ends, one of the main concerns many people have is, “Will my cancer return?”


No one specific type of food or diet will decrease the risk of the same cancer coming back. However, research shows a plant-based diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains can have a positive impact in reducing the risk of cancer recurrence.


What type of diet should I follow during survivorship?

We understand everyone has unique tastes and circumstances that influence their food choices and options. A universal mantra is everything in moderation with the aim to set realistic expectations so you can successfully meet your diet goals.


Generally, we recommend most people follow a heart-healthy diet, such as a Mediterranean diet or plant-based diet. Examples of these types of food include:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Lean protein, such as chicken and fish
  • Legumes, such as beans
  • Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats such as olive oil
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Whole grains, such as brown rice and quinoa


You do not need to be a vegan or vegetarian to follow a plant-based diet. Consider the proportion of animal to plant foods you are consuming. You can follow a plant-based diet by consuming about two-thirds plant-based foods and one-third animal-based foods.


Choose fresh foods versus ready-to-eat or processed foods like microwaveable meals. These types of food tend to have many ingredients and can be high in refined sugar, sodium, saturated fats and trans fats.


Added sugars and fats are common ingredients in processed foods such as baked goods, candy, cereal, juice and soda. Many people may not realize the excess calories these foods have and the lack of nutritional value.


Consuming too much of these types of food can contribute to weight gain and increase the risk of obesity. Obesity can be a risk factor for many types of cancers. In fact, the American Institute for Cancer Research has linked being overweight or obese to 12 types of cancer.


Before consuming processed or packaged food, read the nutrition label; look for fewer ingredients and choose foods with ingredients you recognize.


Finally, focus on getting nutrients from food first versus supplements. Speak with a doctor or dietitian about which nutritional supplements may be right for you if you are unable to get the nutrients you need from food.


How can I stick to a healthy nutritional plan during cancer survivorship?

If you are a cancer survivor, it can be motivating to view food as a tool in your arsenal against cancer recurrence, along with exercise, health screenings and wellness checkups.


Another way to think about diet during survivorship is that you went through many steps during treatment to achieve a positive outcome. You have the strength to continue taking steps to reduce the risk of cancer recurrence by eating healthy and staying active.


Lastly, find foods that you enjoy, can tolerate and are realistic for your health status and lifestyle.


It is important to recognize that some cancer treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, can affect some people’s ability to tolerate certain foods. For example, some people who have chemotherapy may lose their sense of taste, which can affect their food choices.


Some people may feel tired after cancer treatment, making it difficult to prepare meals or eat.


Speak with an oncology dietitian to develop a plan that can aide in your recovery and include easy-to-prepare options tailored to your individual needs.


The bottom line: If you had cancer, nutrition can help you recover and heal after active treatment, and live a healthy lifestyle to reduce the risk of cancer recurrence. Speak with an oncology dietitian to set realistic diet goals that promote optimal wellness.