Foods that help fight cancer – and taste good!

On cancer and nutrition in general, see the American Institute for Cancer Research website here.  The National Cancer Institute has patient recomendations here.  Nutrition for cancer survivors is treated in a book from the American Cancer Society, Complete Guide to Nutrition for Cancer Survivors, now in its second edition (2010).   The ACS also has a companion volume, What to Eat During Cancer Treatment: 100 Great-Tasting, Family-Friendly Recipes to Help You Cope.  Conner Middelmann-Whitney's *Zest for Life: The Mediterranean Anti-Cancer Diet (Honeybourne, 2011) offers a wide range of tempting recipes to help boost your resistance to cancer.  The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen: Nourishing, Big-Flavor Recipes for Cancer Treatment and Recovery, by Rebecca Katz with Mat Edelson, (Ten Speed Press, 2009) is another book source.  And more tasty recipes are here, in Holly Clegg and Dr. Gerald Mieltello’s Eating Well Through Cancr: REcipes and Tips to Guide You Through Treatment and Cancer Prevention.  (Southwestern, 3rd ed. 2016).  Two doctors have written books on cancer and diet, both titled The AntiCancer Diet -  see the reading list for the complete information.  Put your tumor cells on a diet!  There is some evidence that diet can help combat cancer-related fatigue.

See also the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine site, which focuses on nutrition and diet. Good nutrition may also help fight cancer-related fatigue. The Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center maintains a website within its Integrative Medicine section that offers information on herbs and botanicals.   And the American Institute for Cancer Research focuses on diet, weight, and physical exercise in treating and surviving cancer.  1 Up On Cancer offers a good summary of how to read food labels, with links to sites providing more information, and some nutrition basics for cancer patients here.  If you are considering taking supplements, especially during treatment, consult with your oncology team - they may do more harm than good; see this discussion at MD Anderson.  If there is concern about a particular vitamin such as B12, your bloodwork can test for its status.  And be sure to check out the new Cancer Nutrition Consortium website, with top chefs working on recipes for dishes that both taste good and are good for cancer fighters!  The National Cancer Institute offers "eating tips" for cancer patients, and more on nutrition here.  Putting together a good diet is not just a matter of cutting out sugar and other carbohydrates, according to nutritionist Amanda Bontempo.   And here from Health Perch is an illustrated guide to antioxidants in foods, a key element for cancer fighters and survivors.  Cure Magazine also has a good nutrition blog.  Probiotics may be an important tool in the anti-cancer kit, especially for patients treated with antibiotics.  If you'd like to find a personal nutrition expert, the Eat Right site can help.  And check out these recipes!  But don’t give up every good thing - as one cancer survivor says, eat that donut!

Green Tea, Ginger and Cranberry 

Numerous accounts by doctors and other medical sources attest to the anti-cancer properties of green tea (e.g., Dr. Block’s Life Over Cancer and Dr. Servan-Schreiber’s Anti-Cancer); see this review on the home site for the journal Oncology, and Dr. Andrew Weil’s recommendation.   I decided to find ways to use green tea with other flavors, preferably those that are also good cancer-fighters, as I don’t care for the taste of green tea alone.  Mint can soften the taste of green tea.  Pomegranate, another cancer-fighting food combines well with green tea, as does cranberry, which may help ward off the cystitis that can result from radiation.   Green or white tea is recommended over black tea, which has been fermented, losing much of the key compound in the process.  Drink at least one cup of green tea – either by itself or in one of these drinks – every day.

Green Tea & Mint Refresher:  Steep one teabag of green tea with a tablespoon of fresh mint leaves, chopped, or one teabag of mint tea, in 8-10 oz of water heated just to boiling.  Sweeten with stevia or sucralose, or a teaspoon of honey or agave syrup, or sugar as you prefer.  (This idea is from Connor Middelmann-Whitney.)

Green Tea/Pomegranate Refresher:  Steep one teabag of green tea, or a green/white tea mix, in 4 oz (1/2 cup) of near-boiling water for ten minutes.  Squeeze out the last bits of the water into the brew!  Add 2 oz of pomegranate juice (substitute cranberry if you need to, but only juice, not the watery cocktail).  Top up with ice cubes to cool until it fills an 8 -10 oz glass.  Sweeten with stevia or sucralose as needed.  

Ginger is prized for its anti-nausea effects as well as its anti-cancer properties. Crystallized ginger can be carried with you for quick digestive help.   Ginger is also an excellent drink, as a tea or cold drink.  Combined with green tea, you’ll get a double anti-cancer whammy!

Green Tea/Ginger Refresher:  Bring 1 cup of water, 2 tablespoons of sugar, and 2 thin slices of fresh ginger to a boil, add 1 teabag green tea.  Steep 5-10 min (10 min for maximum extraction of beneficial green tea antioxidants).  Cool, pour the mix into a glass, add ice cubes. If you have fresh lemongrass, a small piece in the brew adds more zing!

Pineapple-Orange Green Tea Smoothie

½ cup orange juice 

1 banana, in slices

1 cup pineapple chunks, fresh or frozen

½ cup brewed green tea

2 tbsp brown sugar, honey, or agave nectar – or substitute stevia or sucralose

Mix all and purée in blender until smooth.  If you like cranberries and can eat whole berries, add ¼- ½ cup  frozen cranberries to the mix.  A small amount of plain or vanilla yogurt can be blended in if you are not adverse to dairy.

Ginger Ale and Ginger Tea

Ginger Syrup

8 oz of fresh ginger, chopped or thin sliced

Place in a pan with one quart of water, bring to a boil, simmer uncovered until reduced by half.  Strain and measure, add water if needed to make two cups.  Add 2 cups of sugar, again bring to a boil, and then simmer until syrupy.  Can be stored indefinitely in the refrigerator.   

Ginger ale —Try one teaspoon Ginger Syrup to one 8 oz glass of sparkling water (not club soda) – and presto!

Ginger syrup can also be purchased in health food stores.  Again, use one teaspoon to one cup of sparkling water.  You may wish to sweeten slightly depending on taste.

Ginger Tea – use the same syrup or tonic from the store with hot water for a quick ginger tea.  You can also use a few slices of peeled fresh ginger boiled with water, strained and sweetened to taste.  Brown sugar will provide a richer flavor.  Also try using crystallized ginger steeped in hot water.  

Ginger Broth

1 cup low or no-sodium chicken broth, vegetable broth, or water – according to preference

1 cup white wine

2-3 slices of fresh ginger

2 cloves garlic, chopped or crushed

½ tsp smoked paprika (pimentón) – optional

Use to steam clams or mussels.  Double the garlic (see below) by serving with a garlic mayonnaise (aioli); or add chunks of cooked ham and 4 oz of broccoli rabe or bitter greens cut in small pieces.  Simmer until vegetables are tender.  Experiment with other meats – chunks of cooked pork or chicken breast.  Or try tofu in this broth.


Roasted Garlic:  Once you’ve tried this you may want some always on hand.   There are numerous methods for this preparation.  You can use the large elephant garlic if you like that, or several small heads of white garlic.  They must be fresh.

Cut the skin around each head of garlic and lift off the top part of the outer skin.  Check to see if any green shoots are starting, as cloves already sprouting will be bitter.   Place on a sheet of foil, and drizzle olive oil over them and season lightly with salt and pepper. If you have fresh thyme or rosemary a few sprigs of either can be added.  Fold up the foil to make a sealed pouch. Bake at 325º for one hour – or if you are cooking something at a lower heat, 250º will also work.

Each clove can be squeezed onto crusty bread; add some to butter for garlic bread; spread on toasted slices of bread as the basis for hors d’oeuvres; add to mayonnaise; you’ll think of many more.

An alternative method: peel the cloves of two heads of garlic, place in a single layer in a small casserole and cover with olive oil.  Roast at 375ºF for 15-20 min, stirring once or twice.  The cloves will be browned and the oil will sizzle.  When cooled, put in a glass jar and refrigerate.  Jazz up soups, pasta, and stews with some of the cloves and/or the oil.  Or try this!

The Cabbage Family 

Cruciferous vegetables - the cabbage family - include staples such as broccoli, cauliflower, kale, collards, brussels sprouts, radishes, turnips, and, of course, cabbage.  They are among the top sources for phytochemicals with potential anti-cancer properties - see this research on effects in breast cancer survivors; sadly, many of us associate the main vegetables here with over-cooked, smelly dishes.  Here are some preparations that may help you actually enjoy these veggies and come back for more!

Cauliflower Purée:  Don't like cauliflower?  Want something under that stew but don't want more mashed potatoes?  Break a medium-large head of cauliflower into florets, removing any leaves or dark spots, wash, and cook in boiling salted water for about 10 min.  Drain.   Put the cauliflower in to a mixing bowl (use your big mixer if you like) and beat until light, then add some butter and cream, light or heavy as you like, and half a tablespoon of lemon juice.  Taste and add salt and peper as needed.  Granish with chopped parsley or chives.  Your guests will be surprised and delighted!

Roasted Brussels Sprouts:  Trim the ends of about half a pound of sprouts; melt one tablespoon of butter or pour a tablespoon of olive oil into a small baking dish.  Put the sprouts in and shake to coat.  Roast at 450ºF for about 10 min (test with a fork to see if done).  Salt to taste.    Kick this up to another level by adding some red seedless grapes to the mix, and some toasted walnuts! 

Roasted Cabage:  Slice a medium head of cabbage horizontally into roughly 1-inch-thick pieces.  Spread a tablespoon of olive oil on a baking sheet, add the cabbage slices, and baste them with more oil.  Season with salt and pepper; if you like caraway seeds, sprinkle on a teaspoon or so.  Roast about 40 minutes at 400ºF. 

Sautéed Cabbage: Shred half a head each of green and red cabbage.  Add some finely shreded butternut squash, or some slices of a crisp apple such as Fuji.  Sauté in olive oil or butter until the cabbage is wilted.  Wonderful on its own or with grilled chicken or pork chops.

Turmeric and Curcumin

The active element of the spice turmeric, a staple in Indian cooking, is curcumin - also familiar to us as the bright yellow in "ballpark mustard."  Research indicates not only a natural anti-inflammatory property but antidepressant as well.  Absorption is helped by the presence of compounds in black pepper - so to get the most action, use turmeric in recipes with black pepper or ensure that the supplement you take has piperine as well.  For more information, see Dr. Weil's Newsletter.

Prunes (or dried plums if you prefer)

Prunes have been identified (see the radiation side effects page) as helpful for bone health.  Try them in a bread pudding or as a sauce for ice cream - when you are ready for such treats.

Prune and Apricot Bread Pudding

8 oz pitted prunes

4 oz dried apricots

1 cup red wine (or strong tea)

1 tsp cinnamon

4 oz fresh white bread, crustless, in small chunks

2/3 cup milk

1 cup sugar

4 Tbsp unsalted butter in pieces

Finely grated zest of one orange

3 eggs lightly beaten

3 Tbsp dark rum (optional)

¼ cup sliced almonds

Simmer the fruit in the wine or tea, and cinnamon, until tender, ~ 15 – 20 min.

Soak the bread briefly in the milk, add to the pan, along with the sugar, butter, zest, eggs and rum.  Stir gently, remove from the heat.  Place the mixture in a buttered 1&1/2 quart casserole or other medium oven-proof dish, bake at 375º for 15 min.  Sprinkle on the almonds, bake another 15 min or until firm and almonds are nicely browned.  Cool slightly.  Serves six.

Prune sauce

2 cups of prune juice

2 Tablespoons of honey

1-2 Tablespoons of brandy - or brandy flavoring if you prefer.  

Bring the prune juice to a boil in a heavy saucepan, lower to simmer and cook about 25 minutes, until the juice is reduced to 3/4 cup.  Stir in the honey and brandy, cook, whisking, a few more minutes.  Let cool.  Serve over ice cream or pound cake or whatever strikes you!  This dark, rich sauce does not taste like prunes.

Stewed prunes

Soak a pound of prunes in a mix of 1 cup orange juice and one-half cup red or white wine, season with a dash of ginger, some orange or lemon zest, and a cinnamon stick.  Bring to a boil, then simmer for about 20 minutes.  This can be served with meat as well as desserts.   Use apple juice or brewed tea if you prefer not to use wine.

Chicken with Leeks, Prunes and Barley Soup

Fresh parsley and thyme sprigs – 2 or 3 each if available

6 cups rich chicken stock

1 skinless, boneless chicken breast

2 heaping tablespoons of barley

8 oz pitted prunes

1 lb leeks, cleaned and thinly sliced 

Poach the chicken breast for about 30 minutes in the stock with the parsley and thyme sprigs, reserving some parsley for garnish.

Rinse the barley under cold water, then cook about ten minutes in boiling water.  Drain, rinse and drain.  Add to the stock and bring to a boil, lower to simmer and cook for about 15-20 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper if needed -about ½ tsp each.

Add the prunes and the leeks, bring back to a boil, then simmer for 10 minutes or so to cook the leeks.  Slice the chicken breast and add to the soup, heat to serving temperature.   Garnish the bowls with chopped parsley.

Four generous servings.  

Adapted from Best-Ever Soups by Anne Sheasby

Magic Mineral Broth

From The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen, try this recipe for a stand-alone broth or soup base by Rebecca Katz  (Kombu or Konbu is dried seaweed, available in natural foods and other specialty shops.)

We have several hundred cookbooks, and many recipe boxes filled with notes made over several decades; these recipes are not copied from any particular author, but owe their inspiration to, among others, books by James McNair, Barbara Kafka, Sunset Magazine, and Cook’s Illustrated.

© H. M. Carter-Tripp 2012