Cancer patients have special nutritional needs. The most important goal of nutrition therapy is to maintain a high quality of life for the patient while treating cancer and its complications. In addition, all cancer patients must receive proper nourishment to combat the side effects of treatment. This includes keeping energy levels, preventing weight loss, maintaining healthy skin, hair, and nails, and providing needed protein, vitamins, minerals, and calories. Various cancers require specific diets; however, certain basic principles apply to all cancers. As with many other aspects of cancer care, the kind of diet appropriate for each individual depends on several factors, including:
- The stage of cancer and whether it has spread beyond the initial site of development
- A person’s age
- Any allergies they may have
- What part of their body is affected by the cancer
- Previous history of cancer
- Type of treatment administered
Let’s look at how diet and nutrition therapy can help cancer patients manage their condition.
- Maintenance of Weight and Body Composition
A common concern among cancer patients is weight loss due to reduced appetite caused by the disease or its treatment. Fortunately, weight loss associated with cancer and its treatments tends to be minor. However, weight loss occurs in some people, especially if they are very ill or unable to keep food or water. If patients lose too much weight, they may experience weakness, fatigue, increased risk of infection, decreased muscle mass, and changes in bone density. For instance, mesothelioma is known to cause significant weight loss and malnutrition despite successful treatment with surgery and chemotherapy. According to statistics, affected mesothelioma navy veterans weigh significantly less than other men and women of similar ages. Diet and nutrition therapy is important in preventing further weight loss and maintaining strength.
- Maintenance of Normal Bone Density
Cancer patients must maintain adequate calcium intake to prevent osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a common cancer treatment complication affecting about 10% of women and 5% of men. Cancer patients who receive hormone-based therapies, such as estrogen receptor–blocking drugs, which affect bone density, should take a calcium supplement immediately after diagnosis. Doing so can help prevent osteoporosis from developing during treatment. It is possible to take calcium supplements orally or by intravenous injection. However, patients undergoing chemotherapy should avoid dairy products. Instead, they can get their daily calcium requirements from soy milk and tofu.
- Reduction of Side Effects Associated With Cancer and Its Treatment
Side effects of cancer and its treatment include vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, nausea, anorexia, mouth sores, and dryness of the mouth. To minimize these symptoms, cancer patients should consume foods rich in fiber, fluids, and nutrients that contain electrolytes. They can do this by drinking fruit juices, nonalcoholic drinks, vegetable broths, and soups and eating fruits, vegetables, and meats, which are high in protein and other nutrients. These foods include bananas, apples, oranges, lemons, cantaloupes, and plums. However, patients must be careful when consuming raw fruits and vegetables since they can harbor bacteria.
- Prevention of Malnutrition
Malnourishment occurs when the body does not have enough calories to fuel itself. Although malnutrition is fairly rare among cancer patients, it can result from the following:
- Poor appetite
- Difficulty swallowing
- Surgical removal of a large portion of the stomach or intestines
- Longer periods between meals
- Lack of nutrients in the diet
- Certain medications
Certain cancer patients, such as those undergoing extensive surgical procedures, must follow special diets. In these cases, they should consult their physicians or registered dietitians about the best ways to increase their calorie intake.
- Preventing Infections
Patients undergoing cancer treatment often suffer from frequent infections because of weakened immunity, making them more susceptible to bacterial and viral diseases. Therefore, they must eat foods that strengthen the immune system. These include eggs, chicken, beef, fish, beans, nuts, and seeds. They should also drink plenty of fluids and eat fresh fruits and vegetables. Vitamin C, zinc, selenium, and beta carotene help boost the immune system. Many fruits and vegetables contain these ingredients, but patients should also consider taking vitamin supplements.
- Controlling the Symptoms of Cancer and Its Treatment
Most cancer patients will experience various side effects during their treatment. While it is not always possible to prevent these symptoms, there are certain steps patients can take to reduce their severity. For example, patients can try eating small amounts several times daily instead of having three large meals. They should also chew their food thoroughly before swallowing. Lastly, they should try to eat only at regular intervals to keep their digestive systems working properly.
- Boosting Energy Levels and Improving Mood
Cancer patients often experience fatigue and low energy levels, which can interfere with their ability to perform everyday tasks. A healthy diet can improve energy and mood, especially if the patient can eat foods rich in vitamins, minerals, and proteins. However, patients should remember to stay hydrated, as dehydration can worsen fatigue.
- Reducing Anxiety and Depression
Depression and anxiety are common among cancer patients. Some studies show that depression is a major reason people refuse medical treatment for their disease. As mentioned earlier, depression can cause cancer patients to lose weight and feel weak. Therefore, they need to eat a balanced diet and get enough sleep each night. If the depression persists despite these measures, the patient should consult with their physician. There may be an underlying condition causing the problem, such as anemia or thyroid issues.
- Avoiding Nutrient Deficiencies
Some cancer patients cannot consume sufficient quantities of essential nutrients, such as vitamins A, B complex, C, D, and E. Deficits can happen because of intestinal problems that affect nutrient absorption. Certain cancer treatments can also interfere with nutrient intake. For example, radiation therapy can decrease the amount of iron in the body. At the same time, chemotherapy and surgery can destroy the thymus gland, which produces T-cells, and impair the ability of white blood cells to function. Because of these conditions, the patient’s diet may be insufficient to meet daily nutritional needs. If so, they should consult a registered dietitian about developing a plan to ensure adequate nutrition.
- Healing Faster After Surgery or Other Medical Procedures
A nutritious diet is one of the most effective ways to speed up the healing process after a procedure. Foods rich in protein and calcium help rebuild tissues. Additionally, these foods contain carbohydrates that the body uses to build muscle mass. Fruits and vegetables are other sources of good carbs. They provide many health benefits, including a boost in immunity, improved vision, lower risk of stroke and heart attack, and reduced inflammation.
Cancer patients must eat a healthy diet to improve their physical and mental well-being. They should avoid smoking and drinking alcohol since these habits can make their recovery more difficult. Also, they should try to maintain a positive attitude, exercise regularly, and surround themselves with supportive friends and family members. By doing so, they may be able to survive cancer with their health intact.