Cancer: Exercise & Nutrition

Healthy lifestyle choices and a positive outlook can help people who have cancer play an active role in their treatment.

Exercise Benefits

Exercise often is key to improving health—it can boost your immune system and help your body fight infection, enhance your quality of life, and lift your spirits during treatment. Be sure to consult a doctor before beginning an exercise program.

Here are some helpful hints:

  • Make a habit of going outdoors every day with your spouse, another family member, or a friend.
  • Perform stretching exercises while watching TV.
  • Perform light tasks outside (e.g., rake the leaves, light yard work).
  • Play a relaxing sport such as shuffleboard or croquet.
  • Exercise before eating to improve appetite.


People who have cancer have particular nutritional and dietary requirements, and it's usually recommended that they seek nutritional counseling early in their treatment. Prior to or during treatment, cancer patients often lose weight, experience a change in the ability to taste and/or smell food, lose their appetite; and/or lose interest in food. Some types of cancer and cancer treatments can cause a variety of symptoms that affect food intake and compromise nutrition, such as:

  • Constipation
  • Depression
  • Slow digestion
  • Diarrhea
  • Dryness in the mouth
  • Edema (weight gain in the form of water retention)
  • Heartburn
  • Impairment of the mouth, throat, and/or stomach
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Nausea
  • Soreness in the mouth and gums, throat, and/or stomach
  • Taste blindness (when foods lack their usual flavor and have instead a metallic taste)
  • Tooth decay
  • Vomiting
  • Weight loss

Qualified dieticians or nutrition counselors do the following:

  • Design diets that provide adequate caloric intake, meet vitamin and mineral needs, and provide adequate protein.
  • Give advice on increasing appetite.
  • Give advice on including a variety of foods and improving flavor.
  • Give ideas for food substitutions.
  • Help patients and their families implement diets.
  • Provide recipes for quick and complete meals.

Most hospitals have a registered dietician on staff. Nutritional services are sometimes covered by insurance, particularly when services are prescribed by a health carer provider; however it is a good idea to check the with your health plan. If the local hospital does not have a registered dietician who can provide counseling, your physician or another member of your health care team can provide a referral. When selecting a nutritional counselor, it is important to verify their credentials. Most certified nutritional counselors have at least a bachelor's degree and often a master's degree.

The National Cancer Institute is a good starting point for obtaining additional information. Your local hospital or a social worker can provide information about community support programs that can help with nutritional counseling and food preparation. Additionally, there are cookbooks that are written with the cancer patient in mind.

Healthy Diet Benefits

Many cancer patients require a diet that is high in calories, vitamins, and protein. While undergoing cancer treatment, a a plant-based diet high in whole grains, legumes (beans), and colorful produce can help your body fight infection and help you handle side effects better. In addition to eating the right foods, it is important to eat enough food. Eight or 9 small meals a day—instead of 3 large ones—may be the best way to go to help your body get the most out of the food you eat and help maintain stable blood sugar levels.

To make eating more appealing, arrange the food in an attractive way on the plate, watch TV during meals, and eat a variety of different foods with attractive colors and smells. Also, try these tips:

  • Limit foods that are high in fat.
  • Avoid refined sugar products and processed foods.
  • Drink plenty of fluids between meals.

Cancer: Health Insurance Checklist

The Cancer Insurance Checklist is designed to help you compare insurance plans and consider your cancer care needs when shopping for insurance in your state's health insurance marketplace/exchange. It was created through a partnership of:

  • The Assistance Fund
  • Association of Community Cancer Centers
  • Avalere Health
  • Cancer Support Community
  • Chronic Disease Fund
  • Cutaneous Lymphoma Foundation
  • International Myeloma Foundation
  • The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society
  • Living Beyond Breast Cancer
  • Lung Cancer Alliance
  • Melanoma Research Foundation
  • Men’s Health Network
  • National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship
  • Oncology Nursing Society
  • Ovarian Cancer National Alliance
  • Patient Advocate Foundation/National Patient Advocate Foundation
  • Patient Services, Inc.
  • Prevent Cancer Foundation

For more information on where to go to get help with paying for health insurance and to get assistance choosing and applying for plan coverage, visit or call 1.800.318.2596 or TTY: 1.855.889.4325.

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 01 Mar 2001

Last Modified: 13 Jan 2015