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Cancer & Nutrition

Illness takes a toll on the human body, depleting resources and energy levels.  That is why good nutritional practices are an important part of your cancer care.  The body requires nutrients and calories to repair itself and keep the immune system in fighting form.  Let's first take a quick look at daily nutritional requirements for most healthy people:

Six to eleven servings of bread, cereal, rice, and pasta. Higher fiber items are more beneficial.

Two to four servings of fruit.

Three to five servings of vegetables. Include at least one serving of a beta-carotene rich vegetable.

Two to three servings of milk, yogurt, or cheese.

Two to three servings of meat, poultry, fish, dried beans, eggs or nuts (including peanut butter or tofu).

Keep servings of fats, oils and sweets to a minimum; unless your doctor has suggested acceleration of these items because of escalated caloric requirements.

Some cancer treatments may cause you to lose your appetite, making it difficult to keep a proper nutrient level in your body.  And certain physical challenges resulting from cancer surgery or treatments can interfere with your ability to eat or maintain nutrients.  These include:

Colostomy or ileostomy as a result of gastrointestinal cancers.

Diarrhea brought on by anti-cancer medications.

Enteritis as a result of radiation to the upper abdomen or pelvis.

Esophagitis as a result of radiation to the chest and esophagus.

Side effects of chemotherapy.

Surgery, radiation, or physical changes to the head and neck areas as a result of head and neck cancers.

Loss of appetite due to cancer treatment related fatigue or nausea.

Nutrition for the cancer patient may sometimes be a very challenging situation.  If you are having difficulty with your appetite or eating ability, please let your health professionals know.  Don't wait until your health is further compromised as a result of your nutritional loss.  You may need to see a professional nutritionist or dietician to help you maximize your nutritional level.  The good news is that many of these difficulties can be remedied.

Tips on Eating:

Choose foods that taste good to you and are easy to eat.

Try changing the consistency of foods by adding fluids and using sauces and gravies to make them softer.

Avoid highly spiced foods and textures that are dry and rough, such as crackers.

Eat small meals, and eat more frequently than usual.

Cut your food into small, bite-sized pieces.

Ask your doctor for special liquid medicines to reduce the pain in your throat so that you can eat and swallow more easily.

Ask your doctor about liquid food supplements that are easier to swallow than solids. They can help you get enough calories each day to avoid losing weight.

If you are being treated for lung cancer, it's important to keep mucus and other secretions thin and manageable; drinking extra fluids can help.

If familiar foods no longer taste good, try new foods and use different methods of food preparation.

Eat when you are hungry, even if it is not mealtime.

Eat several small meals during the day rather than three large ones.

Use soft lighting, quiet music, brightly colored table settings, or whatever helps you feel good while eating.

Vary your diet and try new recipes. If you enjoy company while eating, try to have meals with family or friends. It may be helpful to have the radio or television on while you eat.

Ask your doctor or nurse whether you can have a glass of wine or beer with your meal to increase your appetite. Keep in mind that, in some cases, alcohol may not be allowed because it could worsen the side effects of treatment. This may be especially true if you are receiving radiation therapy for cancer of the head, neck, or upper chest area including the esophagus.

Keep simple meals in the freezer to use when you feel hungry.

If other people offer to cook for you, let them. Don't be shy about telling them what you'd like to eat.

Keep healthy snacks close by for nibbling when you get the urge.

If you live alone, you might want to arrange for "Meals on Wheels" to bring food to you. Ask your doctor, nurse, social worker, or local social service agencies about "Meals on Wheels." This service is available in most large communities.

If you are able to eat only small amounts of food, you can increase the calories per serving by:

Adding butter or margarine.

Mixing canned cream soups with milk or half-and-half rather than water.

Drinking eggnog, milkshakes, or prepared liquid supplements between meals.

Adding cream sauce or melted cheese to your favorite vegetables.

Some people find they can drink large amounts of liquids even when they don't feel like eating solid foods. If this is the case for you, try to get the most from each glassful by making drinks enriched with powdered milk, yogurt, honey, or prepared liquid supplements.

Additional helpful suggestions can be found in the NCI booklet, "Eating Hints for Cancer Patients."

Please know that you are not alone.  I lost 30+ pounds during my surgeries and treatments for my cancer and I could ill afford that weight loss.  It took me time, but I have regained all of those pounds and a little extra!  To find solutions to your cancer related nutrition difficulties, talk to your oncologist or physician, and read the information available at these web sites:

American Institute of Cancer Research - Food For The Fight.

Cancer Supportive Care - nutrition issues.

National Institutes of Health - dietary supplement guidelines.

National Cancer Institute - eating help for patients; before, during, and after treatment.

World Oncology Network - cancer nutrition links on the left.

Caring For Cancer - Cancer Nutrition links to the right.