Getting the right nutrition during cancer treatment is very important, as the body goes through two hardships simultaneously – cancer and treatment. The body needs vitamins, minerals, and nutrition to remain young and active. Unfortunately, most of cancer treatments affects the patients eating habits – chemotherapy causes nausea, while other treatments, like surgery, may also affect eating habits. Appetite itself can be affected by psychological stress caused by the disease and its treatment.
Nutrition for maintaining strength and energy
Proteins are the most essential components for overcoming the fatigue due to cancer, and to boost overall strength of the body. All treatment methods, including surgery and chemotherapy, and the disease itself increases the body’s requirement for protein, and it enables one to have a faster healing, says Christine Gerbstadt, MD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
Some rich sources of protein are meat, poultry, and fish. If digesting these proteinaceous foods is hard, one can opt for some easy-to-digest foods like:
- Dairy products, including milk, cheese, and yogurt
- Beans, soy, and nuts
It is always better to get the required amount of protein from natural products. If that is not sufficient, protein supplements containing whey, soy, or powdered milk can be added to one's diet. To make it easier to swallow, one can mix it with soft foods, like mashed potatoes.
Nutrition to avoid loss of weight
One of the problems that occur from cancer and its treatment is unwanted loss of body weight. The metabolic rate of the body increases considerably when it is fighting cancer, or when enduring stress of the treatment. Weight loss can affect the treatment, and many times doctors will be forced to stop treatment because of excessive weight loss.
A few tips to try prevent weight loss during treatment are to:
- Eat foods that are rich in calories and proteins
- Have spicy foods when the treatment makes the food taste bland
- Add more fat to the diet if that is the only way to get in more calories.
However, not all cancers and cancer treatments lead to severe weight loss. Some treatments, breast cancer, may lead to weight gain. Having good nutrition while enduring cancer and its treatment does not always mean high calorie foods and fatty diets. Discuss with your doctor whether the loss of weight is actually something to worry about.
Nutrition to fight nausea
About 70% to 80% of people who are undergoing chemotherapy suffer from nausea. One of the age old remedies to fight nausea is to have ginger. Knecht suggests that “starchy foods, like crackers, pretzels, dry cereals, potatoes, and white rice may help to prevent nausea to a certain extent. The specific food that can reduce nausea may actually vary depending on the person”.
Other techniques, like eating small and frequent snacks, may be helpful to improve the nausea. Trying new habits, like candle light dinners, dining with music, or eating outside, may help to reduce the stress associated with treatment, and decrease the feeling of nausea.
Nutrition to maintain hydration
Drinking plenty of water and remaining hydrated is one of the most important things for the nutrition of cancer patients. According to the American Cancer Society, many symptoms of cancer, including fatigue, light-headedness, and nausea, are the result of dehydration.
If chemotherapy is the method of treatment, drinking enough water is very important. Some drugs used in chemotherapy may affect the kidneys, and drinking plenty of water may help to protect the kidneys. Many people have diarrhea, vomiting, and lose lots of water from the body.
Foods to be avoided
The most ideal options for a healthy diet includes lots of fruits, vegetables, and unhealthy fats. Mouth sores can make some foods inedible. High fiber breads and cereals can stimulate diarrhea and vomiting in some.
Recommendations may be given, depending on the situation and the health condition of the patient.
Nutritional supplements and risky diets
Using food as a medicine is not a very practical idea during cancer and its treatment. Extreme diets and high doses of specific diets, supplements, and vitamins should be completely avoided. For example, having an excess of soy products, like tofu, can enhance tumor growth in breast cancer. According to Zinaman, “even antioxidants that are supposed to be very good for the treatment of cancer, could have dangers during treatment”. She adds that “antioxidants actually protect the cells, and too much of antioxidants may start protecting the cancer cells also during cancer treatment. Do check with the doctor before having any specific supplements or diets”.