Cancer Institute A national cancer institute
designated cancer center

Nutrition Before Cancer Treatment Begins

Eating well before cancer treatment begins may help to increase your energy and improve your sleeping patterns. If you have lost weight before starting treatment due to your cancer, you may be encouraged to follow a high-protein, high-calorie diet. To prepare yourself and your home for your nutritional needs during cancer therapy, consider the following suggestions:

By planning ahead, you will have foods on hand that you like to eat, which will be beneficial to you later. You will have good things to choose from in your kitchen even if you do not feel well enough to prepare an elaborate meal. You may also come to think differently about your weight. If you have been concerned in the past about weight gain, your focus will likely change to eating enough to keep your weight constant.

Before treatment begins, a cancer tumor itself can cause problems that may result in eating problems or weight loss. It is not uncommon to have lactose intolerance (intolerance to milk sugar), nausea, vomiting, poor digestion, or a feeling of early fullness, sleepiness, and forgetfulness even before treatment for cancer.

What is lactose intolerance?

Lactose intolerance in a condition in which your body cannot digest or absorb the milk sugar called lactose. This is usually due to a lack of an enzyme, called lactase, that helps to breakdown lactose so the body can digest it. Individuals with cancer often have lactose intolerance. Symptoms include diarrhea, gas, bloating, and stomach pain or cramps.

Dairy products such as milk, cheese, ice cream, yogurt, and sherbet contain lactose. Certain prepared foods have dairy products in them that also contain lactose. Many other foods may also have hidden sources of lactose. Check the labels of products to determine if they contain milk, milk by-products, or lactose. Look for terms such as:

These foods contain lactose and you should monitor your tolerance to them. Some foods that may have hidden sources of lactose include:

Many individuals with lactose intolerance do not have to eliminate lactose-containing foods entirely from their diet because they produce small amounts of lactase. Lactose levels vary in foods. Hard cheeses and yogurt have the least amount of lactose. Learn how much lactose you can tolerate by trying one-fourth cup of milk and gradually increasing your intake. Because lactose intolerance is not an allergy, there are no long-term health problems if lactose is accidentally ingested by an individual. Symptoms will subside as the lactose moves through the digestive system.

You may have to substitute other things for the dairy products you are used to eating in your diet. It is important to add other sources of calcium when foods containing lactose are omitted from your diet. You may also wish to try Lactaid© milk that has had the lactose reduced or removed. Your physician or registered dietitian can provide more information about this product.

The US Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for calcium is 1,000 milligrams (mg) per day for adults to age 50. For adults over the age of 50, the recommendation increases to 1,200 milligrams of calcium per day. If you are not using milk or milk products, you may not be getting the appropriate amount of calcium needed to build and maintain strong bones and teeth. The following foods are good sources of calcium (a registered dietitian can also provide additional more suggestions):

Staying active during cancer treatment:

Cancer treatment may cause fatigue, and being tired is not likely to inspire you to begin a new exercise program. Light, daily exercise before you start to feel tired will make it easier for you to continue regular daily physical activity after your treatment begins.

Once you begin treatment, light, regular physical activity is very good for you. It will improve your appetite, stimulate digestion, prevent constipation, and provide additional energy. Physical activity will also help decrease stress, improve mood, and maintain muscle tone. Always consult your physician before beginning any exercise program.

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