Diet to support Chemo/Radiation
by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
Nutrition is a very important part of cancer treatment. Eating nutrient rich foods before, during and after chemotherapy or radiation can help you to feel better, keep up your strength and energy, lower your risk of infection and possibly reduce side effects.
This information is not meant to replace the advice of a medical professional so if you have any questions or concerns, you should talk to your doctor, oncologist, nurse, dietician or naturopath about your nutritional needs.
Good nutrition is especially important if you have cancer because both the illness and its treatments can affect the way your body uses nutrients.
We all need protein for growth to repair body tissue and to keep our immune systems healthy. After surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation, extra protein is usually needed to heal tissues and help fight infection. Good sources of protein include fish, poultry, lean meat, eggs, nuts and nut butters, seeds, dried beans, peas and lentils.
Healthy fats also play an important role in supporting healing, due to their anti-inflammatory effects and because they help to keep your cells healthy. Good fats also help to transport certain vitamins through the blood and can help keep up the calories often needed when weight loss is a common side effect of treatment. Good fats include: coconut oil, avocadoes, nuts, seeds, fish and olive oil.
Many doctors and specialists suggest avoiding antioxidant supplements during cancer treatments because the antioxidants support your cells to stay healthy, while the treatment is trying to knock the cells about enough to kill the rogue cells.
There is also much research showing the opposite opinion. However, as much as I am aware, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ when it comes to eating healthy anti-oxidant rich foods.
Antioxidants such as vitamins A, C, and E, selenium and zinc, and phytonutrients like carotenoids, lycopene, resveratrol, and phytosterols are considered to have health-protecting qualities.
Rich sources of phytonutrients and anti-oxidants are found in many fruits and vegetables, especially the colourful ones like berries.
However, follow your doctor’s or specialist’s advice for your situation.
While we may welcome the positive effects of radiation and chemotherapy to help to clear cancer cells from our bodies, the side effects are not so desirable. These treatments have come a long way over the years, but we can’t deny the fact that both chemicals and radiation still have a negative impact on our healthy cells.
Certain foods can be used to support the body before, during and after treatments to help the body’s natural process of clearing toxins, repairing damage and re-building healthy cells. A diet for chemotherapy and radiation is all about supporting these processes.
Following is additional information about some specific foods. I recommend to include plenty of these in your diet.
Chlorophyll rich foods for radiation and chemical detox support
There have been many studies over the years that have shown that chlorophyll rich foods, which are basically anything green, including kale, cabbage, sprouts, spirulina, spinach, chard, broccoli and any other green vegetable or herbs, can help to reduce and rebalance the negative side effects of radiation and chemotherapy. Green vegetables in smoothies and juices are also great options to get the extra chlorophyll needed to support your body to clear harmful substances.
If you feel too nauseous to eat the greens, you will still gain their benefits if ‘hidden’ within other foods. Smoothies that include some fruit, or vegetables mixed into a soup or broth with juices from meat, all help to disguise the green goodness that is needed.
Miso for radiation and chemical detox
The Hiroshima University conducted a study in 1990 which concluded that those who consume miso soup regularly had up to five times more resilience against the negative effects of radiation.
Miso is a fermented paste made from soy beans, rice and other grains, using salt and a mould starter called Koji to ferment the product from three months up to three years.
The result of this fermentation process produces a product that is rich in enzymes, probiotic bacteria, vitamins, minerals, protein aminos, healthy carbs and some fat. Fermented foods like miso have been used for a long time as healing foods and also to support the body to clear toxins and reduce the side effects of radiation.
Apparently it is best to drink one cup of miso soup one to three times a day prior to and after treatment to get the full effect. Some articles suggest doing so for one-month prior and afterwards, while others state that the best effects were when people drank the soup on a regular basis. I guess it all helps, so even if you have only just discovered this article after you have had your treatments, then miso soup will still benefit you…and it tastes pretty good. Different tastes and types are available to choose.
Pectin power to chelate chemical toxins and radiation
Pectin is that sticky substance that makes fruit turn into jam. Technically it is called a polysaccharide and is found in the cell walls of many fruits. Typical high pectin fruits we are aware of are citrus, apples (especially the skin), gooseberries, jaboticaba, guavas and plums. You can also buy the powder as a supplement. Pectin is often used as an ingredient in ‘leaky gut’ healing powders.
Why is pectin good for chemo and radiation? Pectin binds to radioactive substances and acts as a chelator (binder) to other chemical toxins. The body can then discharge the toxins more easily via our urine and bowel waste.
I used to have a jaboticaba tree and one season it produced an abundance of fruit, so I tried to make a juice concentrate, but it set like a hard jelly that was so thick it could barely be cut with a knife. I knew then that the fruit contained heaps of pectin and felt strongly that it had amazing healing properties, so I ate heaps of them whenever I could.
Seaweed (sea vegetable) for radiation support
Seaweed, also known as a sea vegetable, is a natural source of plant based iodine. Iodine binds to radioactive substances, offsetting the effects of radiation exposure. Research from exposure to radiation from major events such as Chernobyl validate this. Although limited research is available on the benefits of consuming seaweed to support radiation treatments for cancer, we can say that consuming seaweed certainly cannot hurt and may be quite beneficial.
Seaweed can be used as a powder or flakes as a seasoning. It contains heaps of extra trace minerals that can be added to soups, stocks, casseroles or just sprinkled on salads with all the good that vegetables from the sea can bring. Apparently if we lack iodine, our bodies can be more easily damaged by radiation.
Zeolite to detox radiation and chemicals
While not a food, Zeolite is worth mentioning here as a mineral used therapeutically to help the body chelate (bind and clear) radioactive substances and harmful chemicals from the body. Hundreds of tons of Zeolite were used in and around Chernobyl to help absorb the radioactive metals. Natural Clinoptilolite is considered the safest zeolite to use for health needs. Because it isn’t food related, I won’t expand on this, but you may wish to speak to your health practitioner if you feel it may benefit you.
The aim of a diet for chemotherapy and radiation support is to reduce toxicity and inflammation in your body, provide good proteins to help heal tissues and help fight infection, and provide healthy fats and anti-oxidant rich foods to support healing and keep your cells healthy.
While a diet for chemotherapy and radiation support is not considered a cure, it’s about helping your body to do its natural job of healing by including foods that support the body and eliminating foods considered detrimental.
Foods containing sugar, caffeine, gluten, dairy, additives and potential pro-inflammatory foods should be removed and replaced with nutritious, healthy, supportive food. The diet can provide a cross section of foods, but there may be times when all that can be handled is a simple soup, or steamed veggies. In the re-building (after treatment) phase, more robust foods can be introduced.
For diarrhoea, cramping, trouble digesting food, or to use after some types of surgery, a low fibre diet may be beneficial. Check with your doctor or health practitioner.
Important: Before you commence a new diet, see your medical or health care professional for qualified guidance about what foods and supplements are best for your body. While on the diet do not stop any medications or supplements previously prescribed unless advised otherwise by your medical or health care professional.
Note: During the early stages of a new diet, you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, headaches or body aches, which may occur because your body is detoxifying. However, if you are unsure about a symptom at any time, check immediately with your medical or health care professional.
While it’s all very well to suggest a healthy eating plan for you while you have cancer, it’s great when you can do it, however there may be times when you simply cannot manage certain foods due to nausea, vomiting, pain or for whatever reason. This is when you do the best you can manage and eat what feels right for you.
This isn’t a free card to eat whatever you want, but rather to let you know that your body has infinite wisdom and may ask you to eat specific foods on certain days. For example, I’ve known people with cancer who said that all they could eat one day was mangos and the next day they couldn’t stand the smell of them. Or one day they needed to eat lots of salty foods. Or they just had to eat just bananas…and the list goes on.
It’s somewhat like pregnancy when the body calls for certain nutrients to deal with what it’s going through at that moment – for example, to settle the liver or to support inflamed intestines. You don’t have to understand it, just honour what the body is calling for.
However, there can be some tricks. If you feel like chocolate, then your body is really calling for magnesium rich foods. Salt cravings means your body needs more minerals.
If uncertain, get help from an understanding practitioner, but most of all…please listen to your body.
Client name and identifying information changed
Libby, an 85-year-old client, was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a radical mastectomy to remove both breasts and surrounding lymphatic tissue. Initially she wasn’t going to have any treatment because of the potential risk at her age, and some thought that she may not live any longer with or without the treatment.
But Libby was otherwise very strong and decided to go ahead with the treatment plan. Once the program was started, she was on a roller coaster of treatment regimes, including chemotherapy and radiation, as more spots were found in other parts of her body where the cancer had spread.
After a few weeks of treatment Libby came to me as she felt her life force being stripped away by the treatments.
Due to family pressure, she decided to stay with the medical regime for a while, but wanted to see what could be done to otherwise support herself. Her doctors told her to keep her weight up by eating anything that was high calorie, such as pizzas, hamburgers, chocolate, bread, pastry and so on. But her weight kept dropping no matter what she ate (she was a tiny lady as it was) and she just didn’t feel good about what she was eating.
I asked her what would feel good to eat and she replied that she had been craving broths but knew that they didn’t have many calories. Her body also craved fats but she would vomit every time she ate animal fats.
I thought that broths and soups would be great for her as they are easy to digest and loaded with minerals. I shared some easy to make recipes and suggested she added some coconut fat to the soups and broths by using creamed coconut and/or coconut oil.
She loved that idea. After a few weeks of eating broths, soups full of pureed vegetables, coconut oil and creamed coconut (with raw cacao added for her choc fix) she felt more vital and was coping much better with the treatments.
Later she decided that she didn’t want to continue with the treatments as the doctors said she wasn’t responding to what they were giving her. Instead, she decided to live for the rest of her days with good healthy food choices as she had never felt better.
Several years have passed and I keep in contact with her family (also clients) and so far, she is still going well. Please note that I did not recommend she stop any treatments, this was a decision made between Libby and her doctors.