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Cancer and Anemia

Anemia is a common side effect of both cancer itself as well as treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy. Anemia is due to a shortage of red blood cells which can cause a decrease in hemoglobin, which is a protein that carries oxygen throughout the blood. Nutrition is helpful in the management of anemia because it helps the body to repair and form new blood cells.


Symptoms of anemia can include:

  • fatigue
  • decreased stamina
  • dizziness
  • shortness of breath
  • headache
  • pale skin

When you’re anemic, repairing and forming new blood cells happens much more slowly and your body is starved of the oxygen it needs. Proper nutrition helps to provide adequate fuel for the body to heal and stay strong throughout cancer treatment.


Combatting Anemia

  • Cook with cast-iron pots and pans. Food, especially acidic food such as tomato-based foods, can absorb iron from the cookware.
  • If your anemia is particularly related to a deficiency of iron, it may be very important for you to consume increased iron in your diet in order to improve the formation of your red blood cells.
  • Eating iron-rich foods with good sources of Vitamin C, like tomatoes, strawberries, citrus fruits, or bell peppers, helps your body absorb the nutrients.
  • If your doctor has prescribed medication to treat your anemia, take it exactly as directed.


Good Sources of Iron

  • Beef and other animal proteins such as turkey, chicken, and fish (darker meat is best).
  • Leafy greens, such as broccoli, spinach, kale, turnip greens, bok choy, collard greens, potatoes with the skin, lima beans, green peas, all other beans.
  • Dried fruit, such as apricots, dried figs, raisins, prunes, and prune juice.
  • Iron-fortified grains, like bread, cereal, rice, and pasta.
  • Nuts and seeds, including cashews, sunflower seeds, walnuts, and almonds.
  • Mix blackstrap molasses in hot cereals, such as oatmeal or cream of wheat.

There are certain foods that can decrease the absorption of iron-rich foods and supplements. You can still eat these foods, just take care not to eat them when you’re eating foods rich in iron or taking iron supplements. If you’re having a meal with lots of leafy greens and tomatoes, don’t drink your coffee at the same time.

  • Milk or other calcium-rich foods
  • Coffee, tea, and soda
  • Calcium supplements

If you don’t have much of an appetite, your sense of exhaustion can be a lot worse. Be sure to consume small, frequent meals and snacks throughout the day. If you’re experiencing anemia, talk to your treatment team about it right away.

Do not take an iron supplement unless directed to do so by your doctor or nurse. Not all types of anemia are caused by low iron and it is not appropriate to take an iron supplement if you do not need it. 


Book an appointment with one of our Oncology Dieticians now


Jessica Iannotta, MS, RD, CSO, CDN

Jessica is a registered dietitian and certified specialist in oncology nutrition (CSO). She studied nutrition at Cornell University and completed her dietetic internship at New York Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center. She obtained her Master's degree through the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. Jessica has worked in inpatient and outpatient oncology settings since 2001 in the North Shore-LIJ Health System. Jessica is in charge of all operations including clinical and culinary operations ranging from menu development to evidence-based website content, relationships with registered dietitians and social workers and developing processes and protocols for intake, management and outcomes analysis of patients.

1 Comment
  1. Hi your artical was very helpfull. Ive recently been diagnosed with anemia and have my mother in my care that suffers from it also. Up
    until now i had some difficulties choosing what foods to buy for a menu. Thank you for the direction much needed. Good health to you.

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