Cancer and Nutrition

Nutrition is an important health factor under the best of conditions. Add cancer to the mix and nutrition becomes imperative. There are a multitude of cancer treatments available today: surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, stem cell therapy, laser therapy, and more. Many of these have side-effects, and these vary from mild to very challenging based on a number of factors. The type of cancer, form of treatment, site of the cancer, person’s age and health pre-cancer: these are all factors in how one’s body will react. One common side-effect of many of the treatments is the likelihood of eating habits being altered.

Sometimes a cancer patient is left feeling disinterested in eating after treatment; they might just not feel hungry. Depending on the type of treatment one’s sense of smell and taste may be compromised. Where the treatment site is may alter things, affecting one’s eating habits due to dry mouth, having thicker saliva than normal and so on. One might feel nauseous, or so fatigued food seems a last priority. Things are not so bleak for everyone. Some are pleasantly surprised to discover that they have none of these symptoms at all, and eating habits and food preferences are not negatively affected. For those that do experience cancer treatment side-effects, however, keeping up a balanced nutritional diet is more important than ever.

Health professionals a patient sees, including doctors, nurses and dieticians or nutritionists, can help implement a personalized plan based on one’s individual experience. However, there are some basic guidelines and tips for cancer patients with regards to nutrition.

Carbohydrates help with energy levels, an issue for many undergoing cancer treatment. These are recommended in small amounts. Proteins are more important than they normally would be, as these help bodies heal and fight infection. They are also important to maintain muscle mass. A body that experiences severe weight loss cannot fight infection as well. The long-term prognosis for people who are healthier while undergoing treatment is, understandably, better. For people who find they cannot keep weight on, this is one time in life when a person may be encouraged to eat foods high in fat, although not fried foods, as these can cause more severe heartburn and gas than usual. However, one might be encouraged to eat ice-cream, puddings, and other desserts, add nuts to everything, and so on.

Fruits and vegetables contain important vitamins and minerals bodies need to heal and stay infection-free. Some also include anti-oxidants, a powerful food term these days. If a person feels too uncomfortable to manage a lot of high-fiber foods, adding a vitamin and mineral supplement may be recommended, but doctors should always be consulted first and it is usually recommended to stick to the normal daily allowance, and not go overboard. Some vitamins and minerals can, in large amounts, hamper certain cancer treatments, and that is why it is important to consult professionals before making such nutritional decisions.

One may find snacking on small amounts frequently may be easier than eating traditionally larger meals. In such cases, this is recommended. Health professionals stipulate that if a person is able to maintain their normal eating routine and food choices (as long as these are healthy choices), then this is optimal. That said, it is not the case for everyone, and so smaller amounts may work. They stress extra snacking is for those having difficulty, and not necessary for those who are moving along as they normally would.

Organizations such as the American Cancer Society (or any national cancer society) and the National Cancer Institute may provide resources on how to find a local dietician. Dieticians are among the most important people to consult regarding nutritional needs when undergoing any health issues, especially cancer. These organizations provide a lot of other important information on their websites, such as good snacking ideas, foods to avoid depending on one’s area of discomfort (gas, nausea, sore or dry mouth, etc.), and what kinds of other things a person should be thinking of: little things like bringing extra snacks to chemotherapy treatment if it is going to last long, making sure one does not go for any treatment on an empty stomach, asking family members or friends for help with grocery shopping, cooking, and so forth. For people who may not have enough of a support system, other suggestions are made.

Having cancer is difficult. Loving someone who has cancer or is undergoing treatment is also difficult. One of the best ways to help another or oneself when undergoing cancer treatment is to keep nutrition in the forefront, and not let healthy behaviors slip due to discomfort or fatigue. Healing counts on many things, including maintaining one’s weight and nutrients and, of course, drinking lots of fluids every day.

By Julie Mahfood


American Cancer Society
Canadian Cancer Society
National Cancer Institute

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