While a healthy diet is always important for functionality of the body, it is even more so with a disease like cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society, with a healthy diet, you will go into treatment with reserves to help maintain your strength, prevent body tissue from breaking down, rebuild tissue and maintain immunity. People who eat well are better able to cope with side effects of treatment and possibly even able to handle higher doses of certain drugs, according to the ACS.
"Good nutrition is really important to help maintain nutritious status and strength," said Christina Rollins, clinical dietitian with Memorial Medical Center. "Patients with cancer tend to burn more calories because of the stress of cancer treatment so they're under risk for malnutrition and weight loss, so we need to help them maintain muscle mass and strength."
Every person tolerates treatment differently, so nutrition counseling is very individualized, Rollins said. When patients are on certain chemotherapy drugs, specific foods might have an unbearable bitter or metallic taste to some patients, she said.
"During treatment, we're happy that they're eating at all," said Melissa Schutz, registered dietitian at St. John's Hospital. "With all of the chemotherapy and radiation therapy, patients have nausea or mouth sores a lot of times. We focus on them getting adequate fluids and some nutrition, and we recommend smaller, more frequent meals because they can tolerate it better."
Some patients who are undergoing treatment for cancer need to be on a neutropenic diet, which means they should avoid fresh fruits and vegetables that may have harmful organisms that are difficult to wash off, Schutz said.
If a patient is having problems with weight loss, their diet becomes focused on high-calorie, high-fat food, Rollins said.
"We'll put butter on their mashed potatoes, give them whole milk - there are ways to sneak in extra calories without eating more food," she said.
In remission, many patients regain their strength and body weight and are able to eat a much more balanced diet, Schutz said.
"We focus on low-fat dairy, lean meat and fresh fruits and vegetables more," she said. "Patients can get a lot of vitamins and antioxidants (from fruits and vegetables), which can help prevent cell damage, which can actually lead to cancer. We try to get a little from each food group, so they get a balance of nutrients. Dairy and meat are good to help rebuild muscle if they've lost any weight."
Schutz recommended that cancer patients and those in remission stay away from foods high in fat, sugar and sodium. However, alcohol is the No. 1 thing she encourages patients to avoid.
"Alcohol use is something cancer patients have in common a lot. It probably destroys the healthy cells, wears out organs and weakens the body overall, like with tobacco use," she said. "Other than that, just try to focus on a healthy diet."
Rollins added that someone having trouble with diarrhea or constipation should be drinking plenty of fluids to remedy that issue.
Schutz recommended the same balanced, healthy diet for cancer prevention. She also warned that "a lot of patients who are cancer patients or people concerned about cancer sometimes look into miracle diets or herbal supplements, and we caution them to speak to their doctor before trying those things. Usually it's not based on scientific evidence and sometimes can cause more harm than good."
Tips from a survivor
Singer Sheryl Crow's new book "If It Makes You Healthy," written with her personal chef, features more than 100 recipes rich in cancer-fighting nutrients. She also gives personal advice and advice from her oncologist.
Tips in her book include:
Suggestions from USDA
For more information on a well-balanced diet, check out the U.S. Department of Agriculture's ChooseMyPlate.gov.
How nutrition works
Food and drinks are consumed.
The body breaks the food down into nutrients.
Nutrients travel through the bloodstream to different parts of the body where they are used as fuel, building blocks and for many other purposes.
Your body needs calories to fuel all of its functions, like breathing, blood circulation and physical activity. When you are sick, your body may need extra calories to do things like fight infection, raise your body temperature and rebuild damaged tissues. For more information on nutrition and cancer, go to Cancer.org.
- Source: American Cancer Society