Cancer Treatment Centers of America

The effects of fatigue: How diet and activity can help

Jasmyn Walker, MS, RD, CSO, CNSC, LD

walker energy bites blog

People undergoing cancer treatment often tell me fatigue is one of the worst symptoms they experience after chemotherapy, radiation therapy and/or surgery.

These treatments can leave patients feeling drained. Sometimes, they'll stay in bed for multiple days, which can lead to loss of lean body mass. It's common for cancer patients to lose weight involuntarily. Rapid weight loss often is associated with loss of lean body mass.

At a conference I attended recently, I learned that people can lose significant functional capacity after staying in bed for just 10 days! I was inspired to encourage patients to participate in physical and occupational therapy programs. These programs can help maximize the nutrition recommendations that dietitians like me give patients.

During the conference, I started thinking about patients who have had surgery or are undergoing treatment and feel bad for three to five days afterward. They spend the majority, if not all, of their time in bed. Research suggests that early therapy in conjunction with appropriate nutrition can reduce the time patients stay in the hospital and improve their tolerance of treatment.

It's important for cancer patients to combine activity with appropriate protein and calorie intake on a consistent basis. We encourage this type of integrative oncology care at CTCA. Helping patients feel better often requires multiple modalities.

Your registered dietitian not only monitors your weight but makes sure you don’t lose a significant amount of lean body mass. Research suggests that a 40 percent loss of lean body mass can be fatal. With age, it’s natural to lose muscle mass. For older cancer patients, bed rest resulting from fatigue can have a significant effect.

Protein, which the body uses to repair and maintain itself, is an important part of a cancer patient's diet. Plant-based protein options include nuts, seeds, nut butters, beans, soy and whole grains. Lean meats (chicken, turkey or fish), cheese, yogurt and milk are animal-based options.

I want all patients to feel the best they can during treatment. Eating foods with protein can help. Below is a recipe for Energy Bites, which are high in protein and contain omega-3 fatty acids. Energy Bites are an excellent snack and easy to make.

Energy Bites

1 c. dry oatmeal

2/3 c. tasted coconut flakes

1/2 c. peanut butter or almond butter

1/2 c. wheat germ

1/2 c. mini chocolate chips or chopped raisins

1/3 c. honey or agave nectar

1 Tbsp. chia seeds

1 tsp. vanilla extract

Stir all ingredients in medium bowl until mixed thoroughly. Refrigerate for about one hour. Mold into 1-inch balls and keep in airtight container in refrigerator for about one week. Yields 20-25 balls.