Supplements for cancer patients

We look at whether supplementing your diet with vitamins and minerals during chemotherapy helps support your health.

Our bodies need vitamins, minerals and other nutrients to stay healthy. Most people can get the vitamins and minerals they need by eating a healthy balanced diet, but because chemotherapy can reduce the body’s ability to absorb some nutrients and make it difficult to eat properly, some cancer patients may be advised to support their diet with supplements or functional foods.

“There can be times when the body won’t be absorbing enough of a particular nutrient, so a supplement can help,” says Bupa dietitian Gemma Cosgriff. “For instance, having chemotherapy treatment around the stomach area or the bowel can cause problems with absorbing nutrients. And one of the hardest parts about chemotherapy treatment is side effects such as nausea, loss of appetite and weight loss, which means you’re often not getting enough nutrition.”

"There can be times when the body won't be absorbing enough of a particular nutrient, so a supplement can help."

Supplement sources

Your doctor may recommend supplements in tablet form or through functional foods – grocery items such as milk, juice and bread that have vitamins and minerals like calcium, vitamin D and iron added to them.

“Fortified milk contains a whole range of added nutrients. In a small amount of liquid you can get in a whole bunch of supplements, but it still tastes and looks like normal milk. There are also things like skim-milk powder that you can put in mashed potato, which means you’re getting good energy from the potato but you’re also getting extra protein and energy from the skim-milk powder."

Cosgriff says functional foods can also be a great option for family members supporting the cancer patient, as fortified milk or juice can replace standard items in the fridge. “If you’re able to, sharing fortified options with your family members can help the person undergoing chemo feel like they’re not different.”

Talk to your doctor first

Supplements are only recommended when you can’t get the nutrients you need through food and drink. Before stocking up, it’s important to speak to your care team to see how your body is being treated and what the effects are as to whether it’s necessary and beneficial.

Some natural remedies, and even regular vitamins and minerals, can interfere with cancer treatments. And some, particularly fat-soluble vitamins that are stored in the body, can be harmful in excessive quantities. For example, too much vitamin A can cause skin changes and damage to your liver, and iron toxicity can lead to an upset stomach.

Supplements can help keep your body strong during cancer treatment, but it’s always important to talk to your medical team first about your nutritional needs.

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