September is Blood Cancer Awareness Month when we pause to reflect on the progress made in managing and curing blood cancers. Nutrition is often in the forefront of cancer conversations as it plays a pivotal role in reducing the risk of cancer, tolerating side effects of cancer treatments, and living well during survivorship.
What diet should I follow if I have a blood cancer diagnosis?
Good nutrition doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, most of the recommendations for healthy eating and disease prevention still apply after a cancer diagnosis. Follow these healthy eating tips during treatment.
- Power up with a plant-based diet by eating mostly vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans. Plant-based eating means 25% or less of your foods are animal proteins such as meat, poultry, eggs, fish, and dairy products. To get enough protein, swap animal proteins for lentils, dried beans, seeds, nuts, tofu and other plant proteins.
- Choose real foods to provide nutrients and energy. Steer away from herbal products, vitamins and supplements unless your oncology healthcare team has specifically prescribed them to you. Real foods carry much more than one single nutrient. For example, one piece of delicious fruit has fiber, multiple vitamins, carbohydrates and water which all work together to provide nourishment to fight cancer cells and rebuild healthy cells. “Natural” does not necessarily mean “safe” when it comes to dietary and herbal products.
- Try new flavors on the days you feel well. Changes in taste is a common side effect of cancer treatment, but trying new flavors may help you manage this side effect. A new study found that blood cancer patients receiving chemotherapy often prefer foods that taste umami (savory), a little sweet, sour and salty, and not bitter. Patients who received meals with these flavors were a significantly healthier weight after 30 days than patients who did not.
- At meals, drink mostly water and unsweetened tea and coffee. This way you can taste more flavors and fill up on lean protein, vegetables, grains, fruits and healthy vegetable fats. Studies about tea and coffee show both are safe for consumption unless your healthcare teams advise against them.
- Note: Green tea and green tea supplements are often suggested online and in social media posts for all persons with cancer. The evidence that green tea prevents cancer or reduces cancer risk in inconclusive. Talk to your healthcare team about green tea before taking any supplements or increasing your intake of green tea.
- Practice good food safety. Food safety is important during and after cancer treatment. Cancer treatment weakens the immune system making the body more susceptible to foodborne illnesses. Read our food safety guidelines for ways to protect yourself from foodborne illness. The guidelines include information on how to safely prepare and store food and foods to avoid.
- Note: If you have a stem cell transplant, your diet may be stricter than that of a patient who has chemotherapy or radiation therapy and no transplant. Food guidelines for immunosuppressed patients vary among cancer centers. Ask your doctor for any special instructions.
What are the most important things I can do to lower my risk of disease, a secondary cancer, or recurrence?
- According to the American Institute of Cancer Research’s Third Expert Report: Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Cancer: A Global Perspective, not smoking is the most important thing you can do to lower your risk of cancer. The second most important thing you can do is to maintain a healthy weight for you. There is strong evidence that links excess body fat to an increased risk for twelve types of cancer.
- During cancer treatment, maintaining a healthy weight can help you stay energized, recover faster, avoid treatment delays, and improve mobility and circulation. However, it is not recommended that cancer patients try to lose weight during treatment unless advised to do so by their healthcare team. Losing weight during treatment increases the risk for malnutrition.
- Another important aspect of a healthy lifestyle is regular physical activity. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that adults should do at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week. Adults should also do strength training exercises two days a week.
- During cancer treatment, patients can benefit from physical activity, too. Physical activity helps you maintain lean muscle mass and improves your mood, energy levels, and mobility. Talk to your healthcare team before beginning an exercise plan. If you have mobility issues, ask for a referral to a physical therapist.
How can I separate nutrition fact from fiction?
While it’s good to stay in the know about nutrition research, there is a lot of misinformation about nutrition online, on TV, and in magazines, so take new announcements about the safety and benefits of foods, diets, and supplements with a grain of salt.
Check the source of the information. If the information comes from a reliable source such as the American Institute for Cancer Research, the American Cancer Society, or the National Cancer Institute then that the means the information is backed by scientific evidence. If not, the information may not be correct.
For example, California recently ordered a “cancer warning label” be added to coffee which led to many news stories about the alleged dangers of coffee. According to the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a large body of research does not support a cancer warning label for coffee. A statement from FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb reads, “Strong and consistent evidence shows that in healthy adults moderate coffee consumption is not associated with an increased risk of major chronic diseases, such as cancer, or premature death, and some evidence suggests that coffee consumption may decrease the risk of certain cancers.”
Always talk to your healthcare team or a registered dietitian about any new information you encounter, and do not make changes to your diet without consulting them first.
The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society
PearlPoint’s Guidelines by Diagnosis