Nutrition and its impact on health is a growing concern among adults regardless of health status. For people with cancer, eating well can be critically important during treatment and beyond. With the holidays approaching, we asked clinical nutritionist Michelle Bratton from the University of Arizona Cancer Center for some tips on eating well with cancer:
What are the biggest nutrition-related concerns related to cancer and its treatment?
When patients are in treatment for cancer, it is very important to avoid unintentional weight changes. Weight loss can lead to fatigue, an increased risk of infection, a decreased response to treatment and an increased risk of side effects. I often tell my patients that the role of nutrition during active cancer treatment is to keep them as strong and as robust as possible so that their oncologist can prescribe any treatment that may be effective. On the other hand, if they have a good appetite and are able to eat well during treatment it is advisable to avoid weight gain since some studies suggest that can increase the risk of cancer recurrence and other chronic diseases.
What advice would you give to patients who have difficulty eating due to nausea or loss of appetite?
These symptoms are quite common and can cause unintentional weight loss. Even if patients do not lose weight, nausea and lack of appetite can adversely affect a patient’s quality of life. If a patient complains of nausea, I always ask them if they are taking their anti-nausea medications as recommended. If they are taking them but not getting symptom relief, I encourage them to talk to their physician and see if there are any other medications that may help. From a food standpoint, small, frequent meals are usually better tolerated. If food smells bother them I may suggest a patient try more cold foods. For decreased appetite, I try to get patients to think of food as medicine. They may not feel like eating but they need to recognize the importance of adequate nutrition (i.e. getting enough calories to maintain weight). Since patients often don’t get hungry I recommend they eat by the clock, in other words at scheduled meal and snack times.
Are there specific foods or types of foods you recommend for cancer patients?
My recommendations are usually patient-specific. Dietitians who work with cancer patients are keenly aware of the side effects caused by chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. They provide food suggestions based on the patient’s medical history and their response to cancer treatment. For those individuals who have finished their treatment and are interested in healthy eating to reduce risk of cancer recurrence and other chronic diseases, I advocate for a plant-based diet, which means an abundance of vegetables, fruit and plant proteins and a moderate amount of animal products, such as fish, chicken, eggs and dairy.
Do you have any tips for caregivers who prepare food for cancer patients?
First of all, a resounding thank you and “high-five” to the caregivers out there. When I am counseling a patient who has no one to help with grocery shopping or cooking, I consider that a potential barrier to good nutrition. Fatigue can be a significant side effect of treatment and patients often don’t have the energy to shop for and prepare food. I tell the caregiver that it is their job to have the food readily available and to remind and encourage the patient to eat. But I advise them to avoid arguing with a patient about what they are eating. I don’t want to add more stress to the patient or caregiver. I also suggest staying flexible and keeping things simple. For example, have some easily prepared foods on hand so when the patient feels like eating you can offer them something in a relatively short period of time. A good homemade chicken soup can be very comforting and appetizing but if it takes several hours to prepare the patient may not be hungry any more.
Our thanks to Michelle for taking the time to share her valuable insights on cancer nutrition. For more information on nutrition and cancer, check out our Frankly Speaking About Cancer radio show on the topic. We hope you all enjoy a wonderful holiday season.
If you are in the greater Arizona region and are looking for in-person support, please contact our Cancer Support Community Arizona affiliate.