The Importance of Diet and Nutrition in Cancer Patients

Starve a cold, feed a fever. Eat a balanced diet, don't overeat, he is so thin he should fatten up before he wastes away, avoid junk food, she needs to keep her weight down. Our society is obsessed with food and food advice, and nowhere is that more true than when dealing with cancer.

Nearly 100% of the time when an oncologist sees a new patient, they are asked about nutrition. This is a natural extension of the rest of life since from the time of birth the drive to feed our children is an expression of protection and love. Every meal delivers not only food, but also emotional commitment and support, often cooked with a slice of advice, inquiry and correction.

None-the-less proper nutrition during cancer care is vital. Malignancy and treatment can significantly affect both the ability to eat and the body's nutritional needs. Maintaining adequate protein, calorie, fat, vitamin and fluid intake is vital for healing and for tolerating therapy. For the average cancer patient who has a treatable or curable condition, the focus of nutritional need is not around directly defeating the cancer, but around maintaining the individual so that their body and the treatment itself can succeed.

Discussions of diet are important to have with your oncologist and often with a nutritionist. The key is to find a diet that can be ingested easily, whether just because it is familiar or because easy to swallow and digest. Experimentation is needed by changing texture, food type, and temperature, perhaps with different soups, vegetables, meats or pasta. The answer may be to eat multiple small meals or nutrient dense foods. Many patients find juicing an excellent technique to take in natural foods in an easy to consume way. Experimentation is important, as is communication with the health care staff.

People have been successfully eating for millions of years and thus the body knows what it needs. Often during cancer care certain foods will take on a noxious flavor. This is the body saying, "No, I do not need or want that." Other times there may be odd cravings.  Within reason, listen to those desires. The body is trying to heal. After a patient has survived a battle with cancer, nutrition is important to rebuild and prevent cancer recurrence. A recent article in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association supported diets high in fruit, vegetables, whole grains and fish, noting increased cancer recurrence from diets based on refined grains, red meats, desserts and high-fat dairy products. The article also emphasized exercise in preventing new disease in cancer survivors. With 12 million American cancer survivors it is time to focus on their long-term health and diet is certainly part of that prescription.

Our goal should be to support basic nutritional needs to help the patient maintain strength, immune function and healing. The wonderful part of this natural nutritional remedy is that we can achieve health benefits not only by what we cook, but because we serve it with a giant helping of love.

James C. Salwitz, M.D. is an oncologist who blogs at Sunrise Rounds.

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