- The Experts Weigh In: What to Eat When You Have Cancer
- 7 Pain-Killer Foods and Recipes
- Recipe: Grapes and Shrimp With Honey
- Recipe: Ginger and Chili Chicken With Basil
- Recipe: Chicken and Edamame Stir-Fry
- Recipe: Cauliflower Sautéed With Turmeric, Pine Nuts, Raisins and Rosemary
- Recipe: Curried Chicken Salad With Cherries, Mango and Pecans
- Recipe: Cold Coffee Smoothie
- Recipe: Smoked Salmon Sandwiches With Watercress and Crème Fraîche
- Teriyaki Chicken Salad Sandwiches
The Experts Weigh In: What to Eat When You Have Cancer
Seven top diet and cancer professionals (including an oncologist with culinary training, an integrative medicine nutritionist, and a chef) share tips and advice for what to eat when battling cancer to help bring joy back to the table. By: Maureen Callahan, MS, RD
Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
There’s no one-size-fits-all diet strategy for battling cancer, mainly because cancers behave differently and because people respond uniquely to cancer and cancer treatments. Some folks have trouble eating enough; others put on too much weight.
Sometimes cancer takes people on a roller coaster ride of changing tastes where they absolutely crave cheesecake one day and can’t stand the sight of it the next. To help you deal with the ins and outs, we turned to a handful of top experts in the field of diet and cancer for advice.
Need more info? Check out the links each expert recommends.
Photo Courtesy of Rebecca Katz
Chef Rebecca Katz routinely lectures and leads culinary workshops at top medical institutions including Johns Hopkins. Top on her agenda is always a list of nutrient-dense, cancer-fighting foods berries, avocados, and almonds. But Katz’s real magic is a cooking system she calls FASS. (The acronym stands for fat, acid, salt, and sweet.) Making sure there’s some level of FASS in a dish helps any cook punch up the flavor to entice those with a lackluster appetite. Look for details in her book, The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen (Celestial Arts, 2009) or on her website.
Photo Courtesy of Luis F. Pineda, MD
After 30 years in the field, Birmingham, Alabama, oncologist Luis F. Pineda, MD, says he still gets frustrated when patients don’t enjoy eating. “At the end of the day, I wanted to know what I could do to help people with cancer eat better,” says Pineda. “I was interested in the biochemical changes that happen with taste and smell.” So Pineda attended culinary school every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday for a few years. The end result: a cookbook called Prescription to Taste: A Cooking Guide for Cancer Patients. Full of chili-laced entrées and desserts (to spark appetite and squelch nausea), it can be downloaded for free at www.cookingwithcancer.org.
Photo Courtesy of Jacki Glew, MS, RD
At the Block Integrative Center for Cancer Care, experts use a combination of conventional and complementary therapies that look at the mind and body as a whole. Top on the list is a plant-based diet. “There are thousands of disease-fighting chemicals in plant foods,” says Jacki Glew, MS, RD, Lead Clinical Nutrition Manager, “so we’re encouraging people to get as much fruit, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains into their diets as possible.” Also key: “Stop eating junk!” Too much white sugar, white bread, and white rice can elevate blood sugar and give cancer cells fuel to grow.
Photo Courtesy of Michele Szafranski, MS, RD
Just starting cancer treatments? Be ready for symptoms and tastes to change from day to day or even hour by hour, says Michele Szafranski, MS, RD, a board certified specialist in oncology nutrition with the American Cancer Society. “I tell people to stock up on single-serving foods with lots of flavor and variety.” Try small cartons of yogurt for when you crave tart and creamy or trail mix for sweet and salty flavors with a crunchy texture. “If you’ve got a day when cheesecake is the only thing you feel eating, then have cheesecake,” she says. ACS’s cookbook What to Eat During Cancer Treatment offers recipes that treat various symptoms.
Photo Courtesy of Karen Collins, MS, RD
“For people who are struggling to avoid weight loss, sometimes getting enough calories, protein, and other nutrients can only be accomplished with very concentrated sources of calories,” says Karen Collins, MS, RD, Nutrition Advisor to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR.) Good choices include dried fruits, fruit smoothies, and healthy fats such as avocados and nuts. Gaining weight? Limit calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods. Large weight gain, more common with breast and prostate cancer, lead to poorer outcomes, says Collins. Need more details? Check out AICR’s Cancer Resource.
Photo: Becky Luigart-Stayner
Organic garlic farmer Diana Dyer, MS, RD, crams “36 hours of work into every 24-hour day” on her family’s Ann Arbor, Michigan farm. But 17 years ago this registered dietitian was battling breast cancer and sifting through scientific journals for ways to make her diet healthier. Her book, A Dietitian’s Cancer Story (Swan Press, 2010) and website, give detailed advice about what, and how much, to eat if you’re battling cancer. From whole soy foods to cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage) to winter squash, Dyer says the first step: “Set aside time to cook, and think of it as healing time, not drudgery.”
Photo: Becky Luigart-Stayner
Photo Courtesy of Katherine Zeratsky, R.D.
“So much of our culture revolves around showing love through food,” says Mayo Clinic dietitian Katherine Zeratsky, RD. “But try to imagine what it would be to not have an appetite or to have a sore mouth.” She urges family members to be respectful of a loved one’s symptoms and gradually work with them to find foods they can tolerate. Here’s a long list of tips to help you do just that. Foods taste blah? Try punching them up with bold-flavored ingredients barbecue or teriyaki sauce. Meat not appealing? Search out other protein-rich foods lentils, peanut butter, or yogurt.
7 Pain-Killer Foods and Recipes
En español | Got knee pain? Drink some soy milk. Sore back? Eat salmon. The right foods can ease your aches: Recent research suggests that some pack as much pain-fighting power as common pain medications ibuprofen.
And with mounting evidence that some pain-relief medicines may actually be dangerous for some individuals, these foods may be the better choice. “What we eat has a dramatic impact on levels of pain in the body,” says Beth Reardon, M.S., R.D.
, a nutritionist at Duke Integrative Medicine at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina.
See also: Berries for brain power.
The list of pain-fighting foods might surprise you. From fruits such as red grapes and cherries, to herbs and spices such as ginger and turmeric, to fish, soy products and even coffee, there's relief in quite a number of readily available, healthy foods. Read on for the best pain remedies to put on your plate and try some delicious recipes.
Red grapes contain an ingredient that protects against the cartilage damage that can cause back pain.
This deeply hued fruit contains resveratrol, a powerful compound that blocks the enzymes that contribute to tissue degeneration. The evidence: In lab experiments at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, resveratrol protected against the kind of cartilage damage that causes back pain.
Although the research is preliminary, it can't hurt to fill up on foods rich in resveratrol, including blueberries and cranberries, which contain other powerful antioxidants as well. Or have a glass of wine. “Resveratrol in red wine is far more easily absorbed due to the form it is in,” says researcher Xin Li, M.D., Ph.D., a biochemistry instructor at Rush.
Recipe: Grapes and Shrimp With Honey
Adapted by Monica Bhide from How to Cook Indian, by Sanjeev Kapoor
1/4 cup honey1/2 cup balsamic vinegar1 teaspoon salt1 teaspoon red pepper flakes24 large red seedless grapes16 jumbo shrimps (about 1 pound), peeled and deveined8 skewers
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1. Combine the honey, vinegar and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt in a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes, until bubbly and thick. Remove from the heat and stir in the red pepper flakes. Keep warm.
2. Starting and ending with a grape, alternately thread grapes (3 in total) and shrimp (2) on each skewer. Sprinkle with the remaining salt.
3. Brush a large nonstick grill pan or cast-iron skillet with 1 teaspoon of the oil. Place the pan over medium-high heat until it is very hot but not smoking. Arrange the skewers in the pan and cook, basting with the remaining oil and turning frequently, until the shrimp are cooked on all sides, about 4 minutes.
4. Transfer the skewers to a serving platter. Drizzle with the sauce and serve hot.
Nutrients per serving (2 skewers): 210 calories, 9g protein, 34g carbohydrates, 1g fiber, 4g fat, 64mg cholesterol, 662mg sodium
Ginger can reduce inflammation and help ease chronic knee pain.
Long used as a digestive aid, ginger is also an effective painkiller.
Almost two-thirds of patients with chronic knee pain reported less soreness upon standing after taking a ginger extract, according to a six-week study from the University of Miami.
Those who consumed ginger also reported less pain after walking 50 feet than those taking a placebo — and they needed less pain medication. And new research suggests ginger may also help tackle post-workout pain.
“Ginger relieves pain by blocking an enzyme that's a key component of the inflammatory process,” says investigator Christopher D. Black, Ph.D.
, assistant professor of kinesiology at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, Georgia. Two to three teaspoons a day should do the trick. “That's not an overwhelming amount,” he says.
“You could easily add that to a stir-fry or soup.” Other options include ginger tea and beverages made with fresh ginger.
Recipe: Ginger and Chili Chicken With Basil
by Monica Bhide
2 tablespoons cornstarch2 tablespoons water
1 pound skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 tablespoons vegetable oil2 dried red chilis1-inch piece ginger, peeled and minced2 tablespoons honey3 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce2 tablespoons rice vinegar1 teaspoon grated lemon zest12 to 14 fresh basil leaves, chopped
Thinly sliced, peeled ginger, for garnish
1. In a medium bowl, mix the cornstarch and water into a paste. Add the chicken pieces and toss well to coat.
2. Heat the oil in a wok or large skillet over medium-high heat until very hot. Add the chicken and stir-fry until it is cooked through and lightly browned, 4 to 5 minutes.
3. Add the chilis and minced ginger and stir-fry for another minute.
4. Stir in the honey, soy sauce and vinegar and cook for 1 minute or so, until the sauce is slightly thickened. Sprinkle with the lemon zest and heat through, about 30 seconds.
5. Transfer to a serving platter and top with the basil and sliced ginger.
Nutrients per serving: 255 calories, 26g protein, 14g carbohydrates, 1g fiber, 10g fat, 66mg cholesterol, 861mg sodium
Edamame and other soy products contain anti-inflammatory agents.
Want to cut your osteoarthritis knee pain by 30 percent or more? Add some soy to your diet. An Oklahoma State University study found that consuming 40 grams of soy protein daily for three months slashed patients' use of pain medication in half.
The secret lies in soy's isoflavones — plant hormones with anti-inflammatory properties, says main study author Bahram H. Arjmandi, Ph.D., R.D., now professor of nutrition, food, and exercise sciences at Florida State University in Tallahassee.
Tofu, soy milk, burgers, edamame: All are good options. But be patient. “It takes two or three weeks for it to take effect,” Arjmandi says.
Recipe: Chicken and Edamame Stir-Fry
by Monica Bhide
1 pound skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick stripsSaltFreshly ground black pepper2 tablespoons peanut oil1 teaspoon sugar3 cloves garlic, minced1/2 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder1 cup frozen shelled edamame, thawed1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger3 tablespoons teriyaki sauce1 teaspoon sesame seeds1/2 cup diced baby corn2 scallions, thinly sliced on the diagonal
2 cups steamed white rice
1. Season the chicken lightly with salt and pepper.
2. Place a wok or large skillet over high heat and pour in the oil. As soon as the oil is hot, add the chicken and stir-fry for about 3 minutes, until the chicken is almost cooked through.
3. Add the sugar, garlic, five-spice powder, edamame and ginger, and stir-fry for 3 minutes more, stirring constantly so the garlic doesn't burn.
4. Add the teriyaki sauce, sesame seeds, corn and scallions. Continue to stir and toss until everything is evenly coated with the sauce and heated through. Serve hot over steamed rice.
Nutrients per serving: 407 calories, 26g protein, 34g carbohydrates, 3g fiber, 18g fat, 73mg cholesterol, 1,613mg sodium
Turmeric can bring relief from rheumatoid arthritis.
A recent Thai study found that the spice common in many Indian foods fights the pain of rheumatoid arthritis as effectively as ibuprofen. Turmeric also seems to inhibit the destruction of joints from arthritis, according to National Institutes of Health – supported research on rats at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Turmeric inhibits a protein called NF-kB; when turned on, this protein activates the body's inflammatory response, leading to achy joints. Investigator Janet L. Funk, M.D., and others are still working out the optimal dose, but “using turmeric as a spice in cooking is safe,” she says.
Recipe: Cauliflower Sautéed With Turmeric, Pine Nuts, Raisins and Rosemary
by Monica Bhide
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil1 small head cauliflower, broken into florets1 teaspoon turmericLeaves from 1 sprig rosemarySalt and freshly ground black pepper1/4 cup golden raisins1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
1 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika
1. Heat the olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat.
2. Add the cauliflower, turmeric and rosemary and cook, stirring occasionally, until the cauliflower is brown and caramelized, about 8 minutes.
3. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
4. Stir in the raisins and pine nuts and cook about 1 minute more, until everything is heated through.
5. Transfer to a serving bowl and sprinkle with paprika.
Nutrients per serving: 166 calories, 3g protein, 13g carbohydrates, 3g fiber, 13g fat, 0mg cholesterol, 317mg sodium
Cherries are chockful of antioxidants.
High amounts of antioxidants called anthocyanins are the key to cherries' pain-fighting power. In a U.S. Department of Agriculture study, participants who ate 45 Bing cherries a day for 28 days reduced their inflammation levels significantly.
And a Johns Hopkins study of rats given cherry anthocyanins hinted that anthocyanins might also protect against arthritis pain.
Unpublished preliminary data from the Baylor Research Institute in Dallas further showed that a tart-cherry pill reduced pain and improved function in more than 50 percent of osteoarthritis patients over an eight-week period.
A cherry-juice drink wise reduced symptoms of muscle damage among exercising men in a University of Vermont study: Their pain scores dropped significantly compared with the scores of those who did not drink the juice. Pain-calming anthocyanins are also found in blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries.
Recipe: Curried Chicken Salad With Cherries, Mango and Pecans
by Monica Bhide
3 tablespoons light mayonnaise1 1/2 teaspoons curry powder2 cups cubed cooked chicken1 cup fresh cherries, pitted and sliced1 small ripe mango, peeled, pitted and diced1/4 small red onion, diced2 tablespoons minced cilantroSaltFreshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup chopped roasted pecans
1. In a large bowl, mix the mayonnaise and the curry powder.
2. Fold in the chicken, cherries, mango, onion and cilantro. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
3. Sprinkle with the pecans and serve.
Nutrients per serving: 258 calories, 11g protein, 13g carbohydrates, 3g fiber, 20g fat, 32mg cholesterol, 382mg sodium
Andrew Bret Wallis
Two cups of caffeinated coffee can reduce post-workout pain.
Ever wonder why so many over-the-counter cold and headache medicines contain caffeine? Studies show it enhances the effects of common painkillers such as aspirin and acetaminophen.
But recent data suggest caffeine has pain-lowering powers of its own — at least when it comes to the pain associated with exercise.
University of Georgia researchers showed that moderate doses of caffeine — equivalent to two cups of joe — reduced post-workout pain by almost 50 percent.
And a caffeine buzz may boost your workout. Caffeine seems to raise your pain threshold, making it easier to keep exercising or work out harder than you would have otherwise. Just don't overdo it. “If you are going to work out, get a cup of coffee on the way,” Black says. “There's good evidence it makes your muscles feel better.”
Recipe: Cold Coffee Smoothie
by Monica Bhide
2 scoops low-fat coffee ice cream1 cup chilled skim milk1 cup cracked ice
1/2 teaspoon instant coffee, plus more for garnish
Combine all ingredients (except garnish) in a blender and blend well. Pour into 2 tall glasses. Garnish with a sprinkle of instant coffee and serve immediately.
Nutrients per serving: 117 calories, 6g protein, 13g carbohydrates, 0g fiber, 5g fat, 15mg cholesterol, 90mg sodium
Salmon and other fish high in omega-3 fatty acids can help relieve inflammatory pain.
The omega-3 fatty acids in fish that help keep your ticker in top shape may also tame the pain or inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis, migraines, and some autoimmune diseases, including Crohn's disease.
Even chronic neck- and back-pain patients can benefit: In an open trial at the University of Pittsburgh, 60 percent of respondents experienced some relief after taking fish oil for three months, and almost as many dropped their pain drugs altogether.
“We found we could substitute fish oil in place of drugs — an anti-inflammatory with no side effects in place of pharmaceuticals with side effects,” says Joseph C. Maroon, M.D., clinical professor in the Department of Neurological Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and the study's coauthor.
Aim for two to four meals a week of fatty fish such as salmon, Atlantic mackerel, sardines, or trout — all top omega-3 sources. Halibut, light tuna, snapper, and striped bass are good, too.
Not a fan of the fin? Consider a daily supplement containing both EPA and DHA — the key omega-3 fats — suggests Maroon.
If you are taking a blood thinner, check with your doctor first; omega-3s may increase that drug's effects.
Recipe: Smoked Salmon Sandwiches With Watercress and Crème Fraîche
by Monica Bhide
Makes 4 sandwiches
4 thin slices pancetta (about 1 ounce total)1/4 cup crème fraîche8 slices white or whole-wheat breadFreshly ground black pepper1/4 medium English cucumber, very thinly sliced8 to 12 small sprigs watercress, tough stems removed
1/4 pound thinly sliced cold smoked salmon
1. Heat a skillet over medium heat. Cook the pancetta, turning once, until well browned, about 5 minutes. Drain on paper towels. When it is cool enough to handle, break into small pieces.
2. Spread the crème fraîche generously on one side of each bread slice. Sprinkle a little black pepper on each slice.
3. Top 4 bread slices with the crumbled pancetta, cucumber, watercress and salmon. Cover with a second slice of bread. Cut each sandwich into halves or quarters, depending on your preference. Serve immediately.
Nutrients per serving: 245 calories, 15g protein, 27g carbohydrates, 4g fiber, 9g fat, 21mg cholesterol, 1,020mg sodium
Teriyaki Chicken Salad Sandwiches
I’ve been making this recipe for Teriyaki Chicken Salad Sandwiches ever since my sister brought it to a bridal shower (I can’t say how long ago it was without feeling old, and I can’t say “a number of years ago” without sounding old, so we’ll just say “awhile back.”)
One thing I love about it is that it’s flexible and can be adjusted to whatever you have on hand–fresh pineapple on sale? Use it! Mangoes sound a pain? Pop open a can of mandarin oranges! Have some leftover sunflower seeds from that time your kids basically held you hostage at the grocery store unless you bought some and then they promptly forgot about them? Bam. It’s great for hot summer nights, showers or luncheons, or locking yourself in a closet and eating it by yourself because your kids are doing this (this was from a few years ago, but it’s still 100% applicable today):
You can grill your own Teriyaki chicken (try whipping up a batch of this Teriyaki Sauce–you can use it in this recipe, too!) or buy some pre-grilled chicken at the store. Usually I’m 100% for using rotisserie chicken in chicken salad, but this recipe tastes so much better when you used grilled chicken.
Toss it together with some diced celery and green onions, a little mixture of mayonnaise and Teriyaki sauce (you need something a little thicker Kikkoman Teriyaki Baste and Glaze or our homemade sauce), cubed mango (click here for an awesome tutorial on how to manage that pesky fruit!)!, diced pineapple (fresh is awesome, but canned works well, too), and sliced almonds or shelled sunflower seeds. Then just serve it on sliced croissants with a leaf of lettuce!
This cool and refreshing twist on chicken salad sandwiches is perfect for showers, luncheons, and hot summer nights!
2 chicken breasts
Kikkoman Teriyaki Baste and Glaze
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
1/3 cup sliced green onions, chopped
1/4 cup sliced almonds, toasted
1 mango, cut into small cubes (or 1 small can of Mandarin oranges, drained)
1 small can pineapple tidbits OR roughly-chopped chunks
1/3-1/2 c. light mayonnaise
Salt and pepper to taste
Marinate chicken for at least 4 hours. Grill for about 7 minutes per side. While chicken is grilling, combine celery and green onions in a small mixing bowl or a plastic storage container with a lid. When chicken is done, allow to stand for about 10 minutes and then cut into bite-sized pieces. Toss with celery and onions and then add mayonnaise and mix thoroughly.
Start with 1/3 cup and go from there. Add 2-3 (or more) tablespoons of Teriyaki sauce to taste. The thickness of the Kikkoman Baste and Glaze (or the homemade recipe) is important because it helps keep the dressing from becoming too runny. You want to add some of the yummy Teriyaki flavor, but you also don’t want it to be overwhelming. Refrigerate for several hours.
Right before serving, add mango, pineapple, and nuts. Season with salt and pepper to taste. You may need to add more mayo and/or Teriyaki; if you need it, go for it! Serve on a lettuce leaf in a croissant or a pita (or by itself if you feel the urge!)
Chicken breasts: 2 pre-grilled chicken breasts or 8-12 ounces grilled chicken
Teriyaki Baste & Glaze=1 recipe of our Teriyaki Sauce Sliced almonds=sunflower seeds Mango=1 small can drained Mandarin oranges
Canned pineapple=1/2 cup chopped pineapple