Cancer treatments like chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery can make even the thought of eating turn a cancer patient’s stomach. However, good nutrition is a very important part of cancer treatment and good cancer care. Here’s how to make cancer nutrition a priority within your overall therapy.
Cancer Care: How Good Nutrition Helps
Although the ultimate goal is positive — to beat cancer, cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiation therapy can take a huge toll on the body. But good nutrition can help give the body the strength it needs to rebuild.
“While these treatments are effective at treating cancer, they also destroy some healthy cells,” says Sharlene Bidini, RD, CSO, board-certified specialist in oncology nutrition at the Oakwood Center for Cancer Care in Dearborn, Mich. “Adequate calories and protein are essential for the body to repair itself.”
Inadequate nutrition can keep the body from healing, both from the cancer and its treatments. “If the patient doesn’t eat well, the healing process may be delayed. In some instances, inadequate food intake can result in malnutrition and increased treatment toxicity. These adverse effects can prevent the patient from completing the prescribed treatment plan as scheduled and affect the patient’s outcome,” adds Bidini.
Cancer Care: Nutrition Know-How
When you have cancer, eating right is even more important. There can be serious consequences if you ignore your body’s nutritional needs. “It’s estimated that one in five cancer patients dies from malnutrition, not the actual cancer,” says Bidini.
In addition to promoting healing, other major benefits of good cancer nutrition are maintaining a sufficient body weight and controlling the symptoms of cancer and the side effects of treatment.
“Weight maintenance and symptom management are the most important nutritional issues for a cancer patient. Our food provides our bodies with the energy to do its daily work,” says Bidini. If you don’t take in enough calories, Bidini adds, you can lose weight, feel overly fatigued, and generally experience a poorer quality of life. One big goal of cancer care is to maintain a healthy body weight and prevent too much weight loss, and good nutrition can help ensure this.
“Symptom management is also critical,” says Bidini, adding that cancer treatments can cause what are known as nutrition impact symptoms. “These symptoms can interfere with the patient’s desire to eat well.” Such symptoms can include:
- Mouth sores
- Altered taste
- Poor appetite
- Nausea and maybe vomiting
- Feeling full before you’ve eaten enough
- Difficulty swallowing
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Working with a registered dietitian to develop a customized nutritional plan can help you manage or at least compensate for symptoms that could otherwise prevent you from eating.
Cancer Care: What Your Body Needs
Your dietary needs don’t stay the same from the time of a cancer diagnosis until the victory of recovery; they will change based on what your body is experiencing and what it needs.
“Nutritional needs can change depending upon the type and stage of cancer,” says Bidini. “Certain cancers are considered at greater risk for nutritional complications, including colorectal, esophageal, gastric, head and neck, lung, and pancreatic cancers.”
Following surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy, cancer patients need plenty of calories and protein to help their bodies heal and recover from the damage that’s been done. During radiation and chemotherapy treatments, your appetite may suffer and side effects may be significant, but you can focus on eating a small meal or snack before your treatment. Look for foods that are easy on your stomach and relatively high in calories, like cheese, yogurt, ice cream, eggs, and pudding.
Cancer patients who have an immune system compromised by cancer treatment should be careful to avoid foods that could cause further harm, like unpasteurized dairy products, raw fish and meat, or foods that are undercooked.
Those with late-stage cancer should focus on getting in as many calories as they can, with small meals or snacks every one or two hours. Stick to foods that taste best, and drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated.
When treating your body to get rid of cancer, remember to treat your body to good nutrition as well. It can make a huge difference in your recovery, in your body’s ability to fight, and in how much energy you have.