Author: Diana Price
If you are looking ahead to cancer treatment, as either a patient or a caregiver, you may be worried about the side effects of treatment. Nutrition can play a significant role in helping you manage side effects and boost immunity. While your care team will provide you with valuable information about what to expect during treatment, it is also possible to empower yourself by taking steps to ensure that you are prepared to manage your own or a loved one’s nutritional needs during this time.
Step 1: Know the value of nutrition during cancer treatment
“Nutrition is the foundation of the immune system,” says Kalli Castille, MS, RD, CSO, LD, Director of Nutritional Support and Culinary at Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Nutrients from healthful foods fuel critical functions in the body to support healing and help you maintain your strength, which allows you to manage treatment and related side effects.
Managing or preventing side effects is important because some, including nausea, changes in taste and mouth sores, can make eating physically difficult, Castille says. If you are not able to eat and get the nutrients you need to support your immune system and build your strength, you may not be able to complete treatment.
Taz Bhatia, MD, Founder and Director of the Atlanta Center for Holistic and Integrative Medicine, says that emotional stress can also be a factor prohibiting good nutrition: “The loss of appetite and motivation to eat are common complaints of patients undergoing cancer therapy.”
Addressing these issues up-front through nutritional counseling can help combat some of the most common side effects, like cachexia (weight loss due to malnutrition) and fatigue, Dr. Bhatia says.
Step 2: Identify beneficial nutrients and foods
As you think ahead and plan how you will incorporate healthy foods throughout treatment, it is helpful to know which nutrients, specifically, will provide essential support as you undergo treatment.
First on the list is protein. Castille says that “protein is a critical building block of the immune system” because it is responsible for helping regenerate healthy cells, including white and red blood cells, and rebuilding muscle. Experts recommend that patients aim to consume 20 to 25 grams of protein at each meal (or a total of 60 to 80 grams per day). Good sources of lean protein include nuts, seeds, legumes, low-fat dairy, eggs, poultry, fish, meat and soy.
Dr. Bhatia notes that omega-3 fatty acids (polyunsaturated fatty acids), or “healthy fats,” are also important nutrients during treatment. “While diets are typically individualized to the patient, the importance of protein and healthy fat takes on a larger role during treatment, preventing excessive weight loss and malnutrition and improving energy,” she says. Foods that include healthy fats include salmon, tuna, avocado and walnuts.
A consultation with a registered dietitian can help you identify other nutrients and specific foods that will be appropriate for your own nutritional needs as you progress through treatment and recovery. Everyone has unique needs and tolerates specific foods differently; be sure you are in close communication with your health care team throughout treatment to discuss which foods are the best choice for you and how they might affect you.
Step 3: Stock up and plan ahead to ensure good nutrition
Taking some time in advance of treatment to stock up on foods that will provide healthful, easy meal and snacking options and proactively planning for your well-being is an empowering step that can help you avoid shopping and cooking when you may feel fatigued or otherwise unwell during treatment. As you plan, discuss your needs with your health care team and seek their feedback about choices that will be most beneficial and which may not be as well tolerated.
If you do not feel up to the planning and the shopping yourself, consider engaging friends and family to help. Dr. Bhatia notes that “the goal for every patient is to make eating accessible and easy. Dividing chores among a family, including meal planning, grocery shopping, food preparation and companionship during meals, guarantees a better journey for the patient.”
Castille agrees that meal planning and prep provide a great opportunity for friends and family to offer support, noting that “so many people are willing to help and would like to. Having a friend do the grocery shopping, or setting up a dinner rotation for the family, is a great way to include them—and most are happy to accept lists or recipes to prepare that are recommended by your care team.”
Whether friends and family step in to help ensure that you are getting healthful foods or if you take on the responsibility yourself, be aware that there are some considerations related to food safety and preparation that patients undergoing cancer treatment should be especially aware of to avoid infection and get the most from their meals. “One of the most important things to keep in mind for any patient is food safety,” Castille says. “Remember to cook proteins to the proper temperature (cook chicken to 165 degrees F, for example) and remember to watch for cross-contamination of food surfaces such as countertops, cutting boards and knives.”
Dr. Bhatia adds that certain methods of food preparation are better than others: “Food preparation methods that are most beneficial during cancer treatment are light steaming or sautéing,” she says, “and raw, grilled and fried foods should be avoided during cancer treatment.”
Knowing that you are aware of the role of nutrition and have stocked your pantry and fridge with healthful foods is a proactive step you can take to help maintain health during treatment. Ask your care team for insight into your unique nutritional needs, and don’t be afraid to reach out to friends and family to help you stock up and stay strong.