So, you're sitting in your doctor's office, and they mutter the three most dreaded words you'll ever hear, "You have cancer." Right about now, there are a million thoughts racing around your head. What you need to do is take stock of the situation, and figure out a way to get through this. A good starting part is to plan on the ways you can make yourself as healthy as possible as you undergo treatment, whether it is chemotherapy, radiation therapy or surgery.
To further aid in your recovery while going through treatment, you will want to eat as healthy as you can; even if you are already a healthy eater. Whether you're recovering from surgery or being treated regularly with chemo or radiation therapy, it is more important than ever to make sure you're getting the nutrition you need to stay strong.
"Cancer treatments often cause nausea in patients, which adversely affects their appetite. Less than adequate per oral intake can result in the patient not receiving enough calories or protein for the healing process. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy not only kill cancer cells, they also kill healthy cells (e.g. muscle, skin, mucous membranes, blood cells, white blood cells, etc). Therefore, it is vital for the cancer patient to consume adequate calories and protein for the repair of damaged cells; as well as for the production of new healthy cells," explains clinical nutritionist, Dana M. Scruggs, MS. RD.
Cancer treatments not only cause nausea, but also can make you extremely lethargic, and zap your strength. During this time, your body is craving protein, which helps you to heal faster. Great sources of protein can be found in meat, poultry, and fish, but since these types of foods can be a little hard for some people to keep down, it's recommended that you get your protein from natural food sources.
"Other sources of protein include eggs, cheese and milk. When beans, peas or lentils are combined with a grain (e.g. red beans and rice), they count as a complete program," adds Dana M. Scruggs MS. RD.
If you are having trouble keeping the above mentioned foods down, try adding protein powders like whey, soy or powdered milk to your diet. Since chemotherapy and radiation therapy can sometimes inhibit your ability to swallow, you can always mix the powdered supplements in with soft foods such as soups, mashed potatoes, or milkshakes.
Protein is not the only nutrient your body needs while undergoing treatment for cancer, carbohydrates, fat, water, vitamins and minerals are also essential to helping to keep up your strength, fight off fatigue and nausea, and maintain a healthy weight.
Carbohydrates are your body's main source of energy. Fruits, vegetables and whole grains are good sources of carbohydrates.
When you hear the word fat, you may conjure up images of foods that are processed, deep fried and dripping in grease. Not always so, as there are some fats such as monounsaturated (vegetable oils like olive, canola, and peanut) and polyunsaturated fats (vegetable oils like sunflower, corn and flaxseed) that are actually good for you. In reality, your body breaks down fats and uses them to store energy, insulate body tissues, and transport some vitamins through the blood.
Dana says that she does not worry about her patients' cholesterol level while they are receiving treatment, because they are too low anyway due to the chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
"It is best to have a 1:1:1 ratio of saturated fat (fats that raise cholesterol), monounsaturated fat, and polyunsaturated fat in one's diet. If you eat meat and/or cheese and dairy products, you are certain of getting plenty of saturated fat in your diet. "
So, now you know what you should be eating, how do you now include these nutritional elements in your daily meals, while both fighting off the need to vomit and making sure you maintain a healthy weight? Chemotherapy and radiation therapy will undoubtedly change the way you have been eating. Meaning that, instead of consuming three meals a day (breakfast, lunch, and dinner), try eating several small meals throughout the day, and snacking in between those meals. Don't wait until you feel hungry, this may not occur for a few days until after treatment or surgery. Instead, eat every few hours, and when you are at your hungriest, eat your biggest meal. Drinking a lot of fluid during cancer treatment is key to maintaining the health of your kidneys. It is recommended that you drink 8-10 ounces glasses a day. Staying hydrated will help you replace the fluids lost during bouts of vomiting and diarrhea. You will want to make sure you have something to drink not only with your meals, but in between as well.
Between 70-80% of cancer patients going through treatment suffer from nausea and/or vomiting. Foods and beverages that help control nausea include: soda crackers, regular ginger ale (not sugar-free), and ginger (which can be eaten in the form of "pickled ginger" or dried ginger, which can be chewed or sucked on. Also some of your starchier foods such as pretzels, dry cereals and white rice can help calm your stomach.
Clinical Nutritionist, Dana M. Scruggs goes on to add that, "The most common between meals snacks for cancer patients are high calorie/high protein supplements such as Ensure Plus. These supplements are often mixed with ice cream to create tasty milkshakes. However, if the cancer patient is 'burned out' on drinking these supplements, then other good snack choices include anything that is calorie and protein dense. Examples of such foods include: a grilled cheese sandwich, a meaty sandwich, a hamburger or cheeseburger, or even a peanut butter and jelly sandwich."
There is no single cancer diet, so your approach to nutrition during treatment depends on the type of cancer you have, and the kind of treatment you will need. Eating a proper diet that contains a variety of foods will provide your body with the nutrients needed to help fight cancer.
"By keeping the chemo therapy or radiation therapy patient's weight within a healthy range, we optimize the ability of the patient to heal. By ensuring that these patients have adequate protein in their diets, we reduce the risk for infection and opportunistic organisms from doing further harm to the patient," says Dana M. Scruggs MS. RD.
And remember, just because treatment is over, doesn't mean you should go back to your old eating habits. Keeping up your healthy lifestyle should be your goal. This means decreasing the amount of saturated fat in your diet, avoiding salt-cured, and eating plenty of high fiber foods.