How to navigate nutrition after a cancer diagnosis

Fruits and veggies

Eating healthy is challenging for most of us. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, complex carbohydrates and protein is ideal. But if you have cancer and are going through chemotherapy, staying on a healthy diet — or even eating at all — can become extremely difficult.

“Patients need to optimize their nutrition and hydration so they are strong enough for treatment,” said Jill Bice, MS, RD, a nutrition expert at UChicago Medicine’s Comprehensive Cancer Center. “This means eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, vitamins and minerals. But loss of appetite can start just a day or two after chemotherapy begins.”

Bice says that, depending on the cancer and the type of chemotherapy, dietitians are able to pinpoint what side effects a patient is most likely to encounter and the best course of action.

“Everyone reacts a little differently to chemotherapy,” said Bice. “So we encourage patients to listen to their body and see what works for them. It’s important to take advantage of the days they feel well. If there are a couple of days after chemo that you aren’t feeling very good that’s understandable, we’ll give you tips and tricks to get through those days.”

On good days, Bice recommends doing the best you can to have a full meal. For instance, if you are hungry in the morning, enjoy a hearty breakfast, she tells them. Your appetite may dwindle later in the day.

In order to prepare for the road ahead, Bice suggests patients rely on a support system of friends and family.

“Take advantage of family, neighbors and friends who offer to help,” Bice said. “Ask them to prepare food so you can come home after a long day of treatment to a home-cooked meal. Aside from coming to your treatments and appointments, eating and drinking should be your number one job. It’s the best thing you can do for yourself to make sure you get through your treatments. Think about it this way, that’s your job.”

Some tips Bice gives for overcoming nausea/vomiting while undergoing cancer treatment include:

  1. Eat small, frequent meals (6-8 small meals vs. 3 large meals)
  2. Avoid strong smells/odors (stay out of the kitchen when cooking and try to eat more cold/room temp foods – warm foods are more odorous)
  3. Eat more bland foods – avoid foods that are very sweet, greasy or fatty
  4. Snack on dry, starchy foods throughout the day to help settle your stomach (cheerios, crackers, pretzels, etc).


Supportive oncology team, Christopher Daugherty, MD

Helping You Cope With Cancer

The supportive oncology program offers a range of helpful services for cancer patients and their families, including mental health care, nutrition counseling, social work support and more.

Coleman Foundation Supportive Oncology Care Suite