Eating well with blood cancer
What to eat when you have blood cancer
Whether you're living with leukaemia, lymphoma, myeloma or any other type of blood cancer, eating well is an important part of looking after your body and mind.
What you need to know
- Be kind to yourself – Nutritious food and drink will give you energy to help you through treatment, support your recovery and live your daily life. Treats are important too.
- No diet, supplement or "superfood" can cure cancer – In fact, cutting out too many foods could mean you're not getting all the nourishment and energy you need. It's best to follow a healthy, balanced diet. Ask your healthcare team if there's anything specific you need to eat more or less of.
- Blood cancer treatment can make it harder to eat well – You might be struggling with eating problems like nausea or sore mouth which can make it harder to eat. You're not alone, and there are things that can help.
On this page:
Why eating well matters
Eating a balanced diet is important whether you’re preparing for treatment, having treatment, on watch and wait or in remission. Alongside exercise and looking after your emotional health, eating a balanced diet is a big part of making sure your body works at its best.
Having a balanced diet, high in energy and protein, can help you:
- prepare for treatment
- cope with treatment side effects
- improve your ability to fight off infection
- recover from treatment quicker and heal wounds faster
- feel stronger and have more energy
- lower the risk of developing other illnesses.
"In the past, I never really believed that what I ate made any difference to my health. Now, I definitely believe you are what you eat, as they say, because of what my body has been through."
Read Anna's story about how blood cancer changed her attitude to eating.
What should I be eating?
Different foods have different benefits, so aim to have a wide range of foods. Evidence shows a balanced approach is the best thing for your overall health. This means eating things from all the food groups your body needs.
Here’s a quick guide to the main types of food everyone should aim to include in their diet:
- You need carbohydrates for energy – Wholewheat pasta, brown rice, wholegrain bread and potatoes with skin on are all healthy options. Carbohydrates should make up around a third of a meal.
- Protein helps your body grow and repair – Try beans, peas, lentils, fish, meat, dairy, eggs and vegetarian and vegan alternatives such as Quorn or tofu. Aim to have some protein with every meal.
- Eat a wide range of fruit and vegetables – They are packed with vitamins, minerals and are a good source of fibre – great for your health. Boost your intake by grating or cutting up extra vegetables to add to your normal sauces, sandwiches or ready-meals. Eat fruit whole if you can (rather than in juices and smoothies) as it has nutrients and fibre in the skin and pulp.
- Dairy products are great for bone health – Milk, cheese and yoghurt all count. Dairy-free alternatives are also good. Just check they have added calcium.
- Fibre is important for gut health – Choose wholegrain, eat the skins on fruits and vegetables and have unsalted nuts, seeds, beans and pulses as part of your daily diet.
- We all need a little fat in our diet – Unsaturated fats like vegetables oils, nuts and oily fish are best for health.
It’s also important to stay hydrated. Aim for six to eight cups or glasses of fluid a day. Water, milk and sugar-free drinks (including tea and coffee) all count.
If you’d like to learn more about healthy eating, we have a list of resources at the bottom of this page.
Find out what’s right for you
Everyone is different, and eating well while going through treatment might be different to eating well if you’re in remission or on watch and wait. For example, if you’re at risk of losing weight due to the side effects of treatment, you might need to prioritise eating high calorie foods instead of having lots of fruit and vegetables.
Your healthcare team or dietitian can let you know if there’s anything specific you should be eating more or less of. The advice they give will depend on your individual situation.
It’s important to try to eat the right amount of food each day. Your body needs energy from the calories in your food to keep you alive and stay strong.
Energy is vital for physical activity, but it’s also needed to power your body. Organs such as your lungs, heart, liver and brain use hundreds of calories every day, and that energy needs to come from the food you eat.
Everyone is different and may need different amounts of calories. If your energy intake becomes too low you’ll start to lose weight, which might make you feel tired and weak.
As a guide, an average man needs around 2,500 calories and an average woman needs 2,000 calories a day, to maintain a healthy body weight.
Blood cancer and its treatment can weaken your immune system, putting you at risk of infections. You can reduce your risk by following food safety guidelines when preparing, cooking and storing food. Sometimes you hospital team might also recommend avoiding some foods that have a higher risk of carrying harmful bacteria.
"With the amount of chemotherapy I was having, there was a risk I could lose a lot of weight. A dietitian gave me advice about getting extra calories, including eating proteins and adding butter and cream to my food."
Read Emma's story about eating to boost her energy during blood cancer treatment.
Eating well on a budget
It can feel like a big challenge to eat well when money is tight. But healthy food doesn’t need to cost a lot. Here are some tips to eat well while spending less:
- Use frozen or tinned fruit and veg – they’re just as nutritious as fresh and are often much cheaper. And they’re usually ready chopped, saving you time and energy when you’re feeling fatigued.
- When buying fresh, choose fruit and veg that’s in season – like sweetcorn in summer and parsnips in winter. They’re cheaper and widely available.
- Plant-based protein is usually cheaper than meat – lentils and beans are a cheap and tasty replacement for meat in recipes like Bolognese sauce, stews and curries. Or switch some of the meat for plant-based protein to reduce the cost.
- Save money when cooking – If you have a microwave, slow cooker or air-fryer they’re cheaper to use than an oven. If you’re using an oven, batch-cooking makes the cost per-meal cheaper.
The British Dietetic Association has more advice in its fact sheet Eat well, spend less.
If you’re struggling to afford food, there are services across the country to help. They include food banks, social supermarkets, community fridges and community meal schemes. See our money and work page for more details.
Your guide to eating well
Get your free booklet all about eating well with blood cancer. Includes information on having a balanced diet, food safety and tips to help with eating problems.
If you're finding it hard to eat
Blood cancer and its treatment can cause problems with eating. It’s important to know these problems are usually temporary, and there are treatments and things you can do to help.
Tell your doctor or clinical nurse specialist if you’re having any problems with eating. They will often be able to suggest treatment or dietary approaches to help you eat. They can also refer you to a dietitian for specialist advice to help you get the nutrition you need.
More tools and support
If you’re ready to learn more about eating well, the following resources are a great place to start.
The NHS Eatwell Guide is a good guide to the type of foods and drinks to aim for.
Maggie’s cancer centres offer free nutrition courses for anyone with cancer.
The British Dietetic Association’s Food Fact Sheets are written by dietitians to help you learn the best ways to eat and drink to keep your body fit and healthy.
The World Cancer Research Fund has evidence-based information about diet and cancer risk.
Many thanks to specialist haematology dietitians Natasha Jones and Victoria Mace for checking the content on this page.