2011 > Cancer Treatments > Nutrition & Cancer

Nutrition & Cancer

Nutrition & Cancer
Credit: Bumrungrad International hospital

Nutrition plays vital role for patients battling cancer

Good nutrition habits are helping cancer patients overcome treatment side effects while boosting their immune systems.

Cancer poses a host of challenges to a patient’s physical, mental and emotional well-being. Pain caused by the disease itself and from treatment side effects is a common culprit for loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, weakness and even depression. Many cancer patients experience significant weight loss in a short period of time.     

To better understand the role of diet and nutrition for cancer patients, Better Health turned to Khun Sallaya Kongsomboonvech, one of Thailand’s few registered dieticians, for advice on overcoming nutritional challenges while fighting cancer. 

Diet focus    

Cancer patients have a particular need to consume higher amounts of protein and energy-boosting carbohydrates to help build and maintain body strength and prevent excessive weight loss. Besides protein and carbohydrates, patients need a sufficient intake of vitamins and minerals which offer important immune system benefits.    

“A patient’s diet needs to be nutritious and balanced,” Khun Sallaya explains. “For example, ‘good’ carbohydrates are found in whole grain foods that are high in fiber. So-called ‘bad’ carbohydrates are found in foods such as bakery products that are often high in fat and sugar and best avoided. Fresh fruits and vegetables are an excellent source of anti-oxidant vitamins and minerals with cancer-fighting qualities.”     

She also notes that patients shouldn’t attempt to eliminate fat completely. “Fat is a source of energy, although saturated fat (found in dairy products and other foods) should be avoided whenever possible,” says Khun Sallaya.  “Patients can benefit from foods containing mono-unsaturated fats, such as olive oil, rice bran oil and deep-sea fish that contain omega-3 fatty acids. Research on mono-unsaturated fats found benefits for brain and heart health, and these ‘good’ fats have beneficial anti-inflammatory properties.” 

Obstacles & solutions    

Dietary problems are a fact of life for patients fighting cancer. The following suggestions can help patients overcome the most prevalent food-related challenges:      

Loss of appetite, nausea: Today’s generation of cancer medications is a great improvement over previous generations, and they are less likely to cause loss of appetite and/or nausea. Patients are advised to eat more frequent meals but in smaller portions. Food should still be chosen for its nutritional content even though portion sizes are smaller.
   
Infection: A cancer patient’s immune system is weaker than that of a healthy person, making cancer patients more susceptible to a variety of infections. Patients can better protect themselves by thoroughly washing fruits and vegetables before cooking or eating, and by ensuring that food is well cooked. Patients should also avoid fermented foods. 
     
Difficulty swallowing: Pain in the mouth and throat is among the most common side effects reported by cancer patients. This can make swallowing a very painful activity. In such cases, doctors typically recommend their patients consume more foods in liquid form (eg. milk, instant protein powder, and juice mixed with fruits and vegetables) to ensure sufficient calorie intake. In severe cases. a feeding tube is sometimes recommended as a short-term solution to help patients resume normal food intake as quickly as possible.     

Eating a healthy diet can be challenging for patients dealing with cancer. They and their family members should take advantage of the expertise of the patient’s doctor or dietary specialist for help and support during the treatment process.

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