Good nutrition is vital for general health and wellbeing, and this is even more important after a cancer diagnosis. If you are able to maintain a healthy body weight and maintain your physical strength and general fitness before, during and after treatment for cancer, this may increase the effectiveness of the treatment/s and will help speed your recovery. But more importantly, it can make the process of getting through treatment easier, as you may improve your ability to maintain as much of your normal life routines as you are reasonably able to.
Both cancer itself and the treatments for cancer (including surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, hormone therapy and immunotherapy) can impact healthy nutrition. For this reason, a dietitian may be an important member of the cancer treatment team, and is able to advise how best to deal with the side effects of these treatments from a nutritional point of view.
These side effects may include:
- Loss of appetite.
- Loss of, or change in sense of taste and smell.
In turn these effects can lead to malnutrition, which then makes the patient weaker and more tired and less able to fight off infection or finish treatment.
It is also very common for cancer, especially when at an advanced stage, to cause anorexia (lack of desire to eat) and/or cachexia (loss of fat and muscle tissue, weight loss and weakness).
This may be more common when the cancer is affecting the digestive tract. Some cancers of the digestive tract (and of the head and neck) can also change the way the body processes protein, carbohydrates and fat, so that, even when someone seems to have a healthy appetite, the nutrients are not being absorbed by the body.
To maintain healthy nutrition during cancer treatments, it's important to realise that a healthy intake of the right foods forms a part of your treatment regimen. It's a good idea to:
- Set times to eat or snack, so you don't forget.
- Carry small snacks e.g. hard-boiled eggs, fruit and nut mix, crackers and muesli bars.
- Carry something to drink with you – such as Sustagen, Ensure or Resource Fruit Beverage (rather than simply water or soft drinks).
- Make sure you are eating high energy and high protein containing food when you eat.
- Opt for more nourishing choices when having a snack, e.g. milk instead of water, cheese instead of sweets and lollies.