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Chinese Dietary Care for Cancer Patients

Chinese medicinal diet is about adding functional foods or herbs in everyday cooking, which is a practice of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), and has a significant role in promoting health and preventing disease. The concept of dietary care in the treatment of disease has long been advocated. The earliest TCM theoretic book, the Yellow Emperor's Medicine Classic, clearly states that diet is as important as herbs for treating disease. For cancer patients, Chinese medicinal diet helps restore from a weakened condition, and reinforce the defense systems of their bodies. It can also shorten the healing process, and lower their risk of cancer recurrence and metastasis. Chinese medicine diet is provided according to the disharmony pattern of individuals, which is also a characteristic of TCM methods.

Generally, chemotherapy and radiotherapy are aggressive treatment methods that not only kill cancer cells, but also damage the healthy tissues of cancer patients, leading to various adverse and toxic reactions. Cancer patients usually have unique nutrition needs; a healthy eating plan can ensure them regain the strength and improve overall wellbeing. During my years of TCM practice, I have observed how Chinese medicinal diet aids in cancer treatments and recovery, I would like to share my experiences as below.

Chinese medicinal diet for radiotherapy

In TCM views, radioactive beams are a kind of "toxic heat" or "fire evils", because they consume the body fluids, and cause cancer patients to develop heat signs such as sore throat, thirst, irritability and yellowish urine. Radiotherapy causes localized or general damages depending on the body parts to be treated, common health problems are mouth dryness, mouth sores, poor appetite, diarrhea, bone marrow suppression, and a low immune function. Chinese medicinal diet can effectively manage the adverse effects and enhance the efficacy of radiotherapy. The usual therapeutic strategies are nourishing yin, promoting body fluid production, clearing toxic heat, replenishing qi, invigorating organs, activating blood and resolving stasis, which are decided according to individual conditions. Below are dietary suggestions for cancer patients during and after radiotherapy.

During radiotherapy, there may have symptoms like mouth dryness, skin dryness, itchiness, mouth sores or constipation, nourishing yin and promoting body fluid production are indicated. It is advisable to eat more ingredients such as spinach, Chinese cabbage (bok choy), celery, three-colored amaranth, laver, mushroom, cauliflower, potato, bean sprouts, bitter melon, eggplant, cucumber, wax gourd, luffa, watermelon, pear, tangerine, orange, persimmon, grape, peach, banana, fig, honey, sugar cane, oyster, mung bean, rice bean, black fungus, lily bulb, lotus seed, Chinese date, Chinese yam, apricot kernel, lotus root and hyacinth bean. They help promote body fluids production and clear the heat signs.
Immuno-depression is common after radiotherapy, which leads to low levels of red and white blood cells. Herbs like ginseng, astragalus root, pilose asiabell root, reishi mushroom, glossy privet fruit, Chinese wolfberry and Chinese date can be added in daily meals to promote the proliferation of blood cells.
Patients should also cut down the amount of spicy and fried foods, and choose a wide variety of foods to eat, including plenty of fresh vegetables, fruits, cereals and grains so as to stimulate the appetite and promote bowel movements.

Recipes for radiotherapy


Dried lotus seed (60g) and dried lily bulb (60g)


Boil with 1000ml of water for one hour. Add salt to taste and serve warm.


Relieve heat signs like sore throat, thirst, irritability, oral ulcers and painful urination


Reishi mushroom (30g), ginseng (15g), astragalus root (60g) and glossy privet fruit (15g)


Boil with 1000ml of water for one hour, then serve as tea.


Enhance the immune functions, relieve fatigue and general weakness

Chinese medicinal diet for chemotherapy

Generalized symptoms, digestive problems and bone marrow suppression are the major side effects of chemotherapy, and cancer patients are particularly susceptible to serious digestive problems, such as nausea, vomiting and poor appetite. Appropriate eating plan ensures cancer patients can finish the treatment courses smoothly.

Schedule a light, nutritious and easily digested diet, semi fluid or soft foods may improve swallowing problems. If necessary, eat 5-6 small meals per day.
When the digestive symptoms are serious, drink fresh juices that make by ginger, fig and reed rhizome to relieve the nausea, vomiting and stimulate appetite.
In order to prevent or alleviate the adverse effects of bone marrow suppression, it is required to eat more high protein foods, pork, chicken or fishes are good sources. Some foods like pinach, celery, tomato, peach, grape, pineapple, waxberry, fig, Chinese date and peanut are able to protect again cancer too. Mushrooms or fungi herbs help enhance the immune functions of body, and so are encouraged to add in daily meals.
Cooking is an important process in aiding digestion and absorption of food, methods like steaming, poaching and boiling are better, while frying and broiling should be avoided.

Recipes for radiotherapy

Tea to relieve nausea and mouth dryness

Fresh reed rhizome (120g) and rock sugar (30g), boil with 750ml of water for 30 minutes

Congee to promote appetite and relieve nausea and vomiting

Fresh lotus root (500g), fresh ginger (3-6 slices), and rice (90g), add 1500 ml of water, bring to a boil and then lower the heat and simmer until it turns into a thick soup

Congee to promote appetite and relieve abdominal distention

Finger citron fruit (20g), rice (90g), proper amount of rock sugar and green onion. Decoct the citron fruit with 500ml of water for 20 minutes, keep the solution and discard the residues. Pour the solution in a deep saucepan, add 1000 ml of water, bring to a boil and then add in the rice, lower the heat and simmer until it turns into a thick soup. Turn off the heat, add rock sugar and sprinkle on green onion

Chinese dietary care during cancer recovery

For cancer survivors, due to the progressive exhaustion of cancerous tissues, their bodies are generally lacked of nutrients for normal functioning. It becomes a challenge for them to recover or prevent recurrence after the cancer treatments. A well-balanced diet can minimize nutritional deficiencies, rebuild strength and optimize the immune system, and thus help shorten the recovery time, and reduce the risk of cancer recurrence. It is necessary to adjust the usual eating habits, and food choices at this time should be easy to digest and absorb. TCM advocates bland and unprocessed food, and dietary changes also have to go comfortably and persistently so as to protect the spleen and stomach.

Cancer survivors need special nutritional management, eating the right food can make them feel better and thus maximize the quality of life. Dietary suggestions often emphasize eating high caloric, high protein and fiber foods, it should also be included a variety of foods and properly combined too. Clinical studies and statistics have showed that this can help them restore from the depleted state caused by the treatments and also speed up the overall healing of body. Fresh fruits, vegetables, grains or other plant sources are healthful food choices, TCM especially recommends sweet potato, carrot, Chinese radish, cabbage, bitter melon, water melon, mandarin orange, banana, asparagus, corn, garlic, tomato, mushroom, broccoli, celery, eggplant, pepper, cucumber, papaya, loofah and soybean sprout.

It is common for cancer survivors to have nausea, vomiting, taste changes, loss of appetite and bowel changes which interfere with their usual eating patterns. Certain food or herbal ingredients can be added in the daily meals to manage the symptoms and improve the overall condition of body. Ingredients that suitable for most individuals and for long-term consumption are Chinese yam, coix seed, hyacinth bean, lotus seed, sesame, pine nut, walnut, white fungus, poria, hawthorn fruit, Chinese wolfberry, glossy privet fruit, donkey-hide gelatin, caterpillar fungus, pilose asiabell root and pseudostellaria root. In addition, when cancer patients develop particular disharmony patterns, certain ingredients are beneficial. For example:

Yin deficiency / yin and qi deficiencies that present with palpitations, irritability, fatigue, breath shortness, sensitivity to low temperatures, mouth dryness, low fever and constipation, are recommended to use ingredients like water caltrop, mushrooms, banana, fresh lotus root, lily bulb, water melon, bitter melon, laver, kelp, chrysanthemum, rehmannia root, white peony root, mulberry fruit, coastal glehnia root, dwarf lily-turf tuber and figwort root for making medicinal dishes.

Yang deficiency / yang and qi deficiencies that present with limb coldness, chills, poor appetite, loose bowels, palpitations and chest tightness, are recommended to use ingredients like mutton, beef, Chinese dates, longan aril, apricot, peach, astragalus root, largehead atractylodes rhizome and caterpillar fungus for making medicinal dishes.

Food recipes during cancer recovery

Ginseng and lotus seed soup

Yin deficiency pattern

Dizziness, shortness of breath, feeble voice, fatigue and sweating


Asia ginseng (9g) and lotus seed (60g)


Rinse the ingredients, soak in water for 4 hours, add rock sugar and double-steam for 1 hour


Promote the production of qi, invigorate the spleen and kidneys, and calm the spirit.

Candied snack

Blood deficiency pattern

Paleness, dry skin, dizziness, palpitations, insomnia, limb numbness and menstrual disorders in women


Red dates (60g) and peanut (60g, with red skin)


Rinse the ingredients, boil with 700ml of water, simmer over low heat, when there remains about 30% of solution, add honey and continuous to cook until the solution turns thick


Replenish blood and qi

Duck meat and cordyceps soup

Deficiency of lung and kidney

Breath difficulty, irritability, night sweats, hot flashes, lumbar soreness, knee weakness and emission


Duck meat (60g) and cordyceps (15g)


Put the duck meat and cordyceps in a double steam container, add salt to taste, add 300ml water, steam under high heat for 60 minutes


Invigorate the lungs and kidneys

Herbal porridge

Spleen deficiency and dampness accumulation

Fatigue, weakness, poor appetite, skin rashes and loose bowels


Poria(20g), largehead atractylodes rhizome(20g), coix seed (30g), millet (15g) and cloud mushroom (10g, powdered)


Decoct the first two herbs with 1200ml of water for 40 minutes, keep the solution and discard the residues. Add the coix seed and millet, simmer over low heat until it turns into a thick soup. Turn off the heat, add the cloud mushroom powder and ready to serve


Invigorate the spleen and expel dampness

Written By:
Prof. Hou Ping
Chairman of International Association of Medicinal Food Therapy
Vice Chairman of Special Committee of Medicated Diet and Dietotherapy - World Federation of Chinese Medicine Societies
International Association of Medicinal Food Therapy is founded by a group of Hong Kong professionals, including nutritionists, TCM physicians, specialists and professors from the local colleges of TCM, which aim to promote and disseminate the heritages of Chinese medicinal food therapy. Groups or individuals who have an interest in this area are welcome to contact them, joining forces to serve community and enhancing the public awareness on health.
Contact information:
Mail address: Front, 9/F, Nathan Apartments, 506 Nathan Road, Kowloon, Hong Kong SAR.
Tel: 27811035 Fax: 27811159
E-mail: peterhoukl@yahoo.com.hk