Most of us know that fruits, veggies and whole grains are important parts of a healthy diet, but you may not know that people diagnosed with cancer have very different nutritional needs from the average adult. In fact, many cancer treatments can make it difficult for cancer patients to get enough nutrition, and, for some, can even make it difficult just to eat. Cancer patients, especially those undergoing treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation, can combat some of the weakness and fatigue with nutrition that strengthens their health.
While cancer treatments are designed to obliterate cancerous cells, they also can kill off healthy cells in the process. As a result of this healthy cell damage, side effects, such as those that pose a barrier to eating, can present themselves. Dry mouth, nausea, vomiting, constipation and changes in a patient’s taste, smell and general appetite are not uncommon. While these symptoms can make it difficult or unappealing to eat, some cancer treatments also can result in changes inside the body that hinder the body’s ability to absorb the nutrients being consumed. Both the decline in ability or desire to eat, and the decline in the body’s ability to properly absorb food can add to the already ever-present sense of fatigue and weakness facing many cancer patients. So the question is, what can cancer patients do from a nutritional standpoint to support their body in beating the fight against cancer?
- Start eating healthy before treatment starts - building strength prior to cancer treatment is key. It will help you build a foundation and do a better job of maintaining strength during treatment.
- Eat extra protein and calories - cancer patients often need more calories, specifically, calories from protein than non-cancer patients. Higher protein levels help support your strength and aid in fighting fatigue and weakness.
- Recognize patterns – you may notice as a cancer patient that your appetite is strongest, for example, in the mornings. If that’s the case, prioritize taking in more calories during that time.
- Talk with a dietitian – most cancer treatment programs will (and should) include the opportunity for cancer patients to consult with a registered dietitian. Seek advice from your treatment team, including your doctors and nurses, and if available to you through your treatment plan, your dietitian. They can help make specific recommendations based on your body and the symptoms you’re experiencing.
- Lots of liquids – whenever you’re able, take in as much healthy liquid as possible, especially water. Hydration is key to your body being able to perform at its optimal state and fight infection
- Don’t make your immune system work any harder – some cancer treatment options can compromise the immune system of cancer patients and make it harder to fight off infection. Make sure to pay special attention to food handling, cooking and storing techniques. If you are a cancer patient, avoid buffets and buying food in bulk from bins that can increase the bacteria to which you are exposed. Similarly, stay away from unpasteurized liquids, raw fish and other foods and drinks that can expose you to increased and potentially harmful bacteria.
For more tips and nutrition information for cancer patients, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) has a great ebook, “Eating Hints,” that offers lots of information, ideas, and recommendations on how cancer patients can better cope with their disease through nutrition.
You also can learn more right here at home from Winship at Emory’s Nutrition Services program.