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Cancer and Nutrition: Taking Patients through the Food Journey

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Cancer and Nutrition: Taking Patients through the Food Journey

What cancer patients put in their bodies is important before, during and after cancer treatments. Eating the right kinds of food can help cancer patients stay stronger and feel better. However, eating doesn’t come easy to many people who are battling the disease. Both the illness and the treatment can actually change the way cancer patients eat. Oncologist Vera Nigrin, M.D., UnityPoint Health, tells us about side effects and how to keep nutrition in check.

Cancer Side Effects

Cancer treatments can come with a variety of side effects like constipation, appetite changes, fatigue, mouth dryness or thick saliva, weight gain, taste and smell changes, nausea and vomiting. Which side effects cancer patients experience, often depends on the type of treatment. Dr. Nigrin says chemotherapy often gives patients the urge to vomit and decreases their appetite, whereas radiation therapy can cause a number of different nutrition-related effects depending on the area of the body being treated, the size of the area being treated and the type and total dose of radiation.

“Cancer patients often have less of an appetite both because of the treatment and the cancer,” say Dr. Nigrin. “Head and neck patients develop a dry mouth from treatment, and therefore, food often tastes bad. Patients undergoing brain or pelvic treatment often have a tendency to vomit from the treatment.”

Dr. Nigrin says it’s important to consider that patients with diarrhea or vomiting are not able to absorb the necessary nutrients and foods that they needs, as the food does not stay long enough in the body.

Before Cancer Treatment

The American Cancer Society (ACS) offers some tips that can help cancer patients feel at ease as they prepare for treatments.

  • Stock the pantry and freezer with favorite foods. Include foods that are edible, even when sick.
  • Cook in advance and freeze meals.
  • Friends and family members will ask how they can help. Make sure to take advantage of their offers by asking them to help shop and/or cook.

During Cancer Treatment

“I tell patients to limit the amount of red meat they eat and the alcohol they drink and increase the amount of fresh fruit and vegetables,” Dr. Nigrin says.

The better food cancer patients put into their bodies, the more functional it will operate to fight the disease. According to the ACS, some cancer treatments work better in people who are well-nourished and are getting enough calories and protein. Cancer patients are encouraged to keep a variety of protein-rich snacks on hand like yogurt, cereal and milk, cheese and crackers.

Dr. Nigrin says how many calories each cancer patient should eat depends upon the type of cancer he/she is being treated for and his/her weight. Cancer patients are encouraged to talk to their provider about these concerns to find out what is the right fit for them.

“For patients with little appetite, I tell them to eat small meals more often, up to five small meals a day,” Dr. Nigrin says.

Additionally, Dr. Nigrin says cancer patients are quite tired, which means they usually do not cook as much and tend not to eat a well-balanced diet. The ACS offers these suggestions for cancer patients in order to keep them eating well.

  • Try new foods. Things cancer patients didn’t like before may taste good during treatment.
  • Opt for plant-based foods, like beans and peas, instead of meat a few times each week.
  • Aim to eat at least 2 ½ cups of colorful fruits and vegetables a day.
  • Try to limit high-fat foods, especially those from animals like milk and dairy products.
  • Work to maintain a healthy weight and stay physically active.
  • Limit amounts of salt-cured, smoked and picked foods.

After Cancer Treatment

Most eating-related side effects of cancer go away after treatment ends. However, the ACS says side effects like poor appetite, dry mouth, change in taste or smell, trouble swallowing or weight changes can last for some time. If they do, cancer patients should check in with their providers to work out a solution.

UnityPoint Health has a variety of dietitians, oncologist and primary care providers that can help cancer patients through their treatments.