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Gina Sunderland, a registered dietitian at Cancer Care Manitoba, says that cancer patients have unique nutrition needs when dealing with surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation. Here are five nutrition facts you need to know to help you stay strong in the battle against cancer.
1. Your appetite may decrease, but your calorie needs increase.
Your body can take six to eight weeks to recover from surgery, and chemo damages healthy cells along with cancer cells, which take time to rebuild as well. During that time, your body needs extra support to heal. "We know from research that the body needs extra energy and nutrients from foods in order to allow tissue healing and repair to take place," says Sunderland. That means you actually need to eat more calories when recovering from surgery or chemo. "Our bodies will take energy from wherever they need to for that tissue healing," she says. That's part of the reason why many cancer patients begin to lose weight after treatment without even noticing that they're becoming weaker.
2. Protein is suddenly more important.
When undergoing cancer treatment, you need 30 to 50 percent more protein than usual, says Sunderland. That's because the body needs to heal tissues and rebuild cells. "Without adequate protein, patients are at risk for breaking down their own protein reserves in their muscles," she says, explaining that a reduction in muscle mass could make tolerating treatment harder and patients' immune systems weaker. Unfortunately, it can also be hard for many patients to get adequate protein. For one thing, those who've undergone surgery for head or neck cancers can have trouble even chewing foods like meat, while some who've had chemotherapy may experience digestive issues. Snacking on nuts, cottage cheese or yogurt can help some people get enough protein. Drinking smoothies supplemented with protein powders can work for others.
3. Fats become your friend.
Sunderland recommends patients add heart-healthy fats to their meals to help meet their additional caloric needs. "We have the philosophy that we should make every bite count," she says. Since many cancer patients struggle with poor appetites, nausea or simply forgetting to eat because of the overwhelming life events they're experiencing, it's a good idea to consume calorie-dense foods to make sure new calorie requirements are met. And while Sunderland says sugar doesn't have the cancer-feeding quality it's rumoured to have, it's also not as healthy or effective as avocado or olive oil when it comes to meeting your high-energy nutritional needs. After all, fat has twice as many calories as sugar and carbs, gram for gram.
4. Special diets or culinary "cure-alls" can be dangerous.
There's a lot of information and misinformation out there about foods that can help fight cancer, but it's best to take your advice from a dietitian, not from a friend or online diet plan. "You're already dealing with nausea, you might be dealing with diarrhea or a sore mouth, and then when you're trying to follow an elaborate diet, you're further restricting your food intake," explains Sunderland. "It can weaken you. And sometimes this can interfere with treatment." And, while antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables are important to your diet—whether or not you're battling cancer—"there isn't any one food, like kale or asparagus, that can actually cure cancer," she says.
5. It is possible to keep nausea from getting in the way of nutrition.
It's no secret that chemotherapy can cause nausea, but not everyone knows how to manage it. There are four tips that experts rely on to counteract this awful symptom.
- Eat small amounts often. "When people feel nauseated, the last thing they feel like doing is eating, so then they go for a long period of time without eating and feel worse, and then it becomes a bad cycle," says Sunderland. She recommends snacking on starchy foods, like dry cereal or crackers, which are easy on the stomach.
- Make ginger tea. Ginger has been scientifically proven to help reduce nausea. Just peel the gingerroot, put it in a teapot and add boiling water. It tastes great warm or cold.
- Stay hydrated. Drink water, eat popsicles and sip broths. It's easy to become dehydrated when you're dealing with nausea and vomiting, so it's important to make sure you get extra fluids.
- Avoid food aromas. A patient who's undergoing chemotherapy might not experience nausea—until they smell food. Avoid hot foods that are typically more aromatic, or try putting a slow cooker out in the garage so you don't smell dinner while it's cooking.
Nutrition isn't just important in cancer treatment; research shows that there are also many links between diet and cancer prevention. Learn how to adopt foods for cancer prevention into your diet.