Yan Yin is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and founder of The Thoughtful Dietitian, where she provides online dietetic consultation to clients and blogs about food, nutrition, and health. Otherwise, you’d find her in the kitchen trying out recipes that satisfy her cravings.
Yan Yin Phoi
Accredited Practising Dietitian
The Thoughtful Dietitian
Healing through nutrition
Cancer is an unfortunate diagnosis in any situation. It is a diagnosis that sends the world spinning, where acceptance is the only way forward. Despite many claims on the internet of specific foods being a cure for cancer, they have not been proven scientifically yet. That means that there is not enough scientific evidence for dietary recommendations to be made to cure cancer, although there are some essential foods for cancer prevention. If unbacked by science, alternative therapies should never form the cornerstone or replace treatment options recommended by the patient’s medical team. In this post, I will highlight the nutritional issues that cancer patients may face. At the same time, we will discuss goals and courses of action in their fight against cancer.
1. The number one goal is to prevent weight loss
Cancer is a long-drawn battle, whether you choose to fight it or not. To be prepared for every war—each bout of chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or surgery you go through, you have to be equipped. The very first priority is defending your weight, especially your muscle mass (more on that in the next point).
To maintain weight, calorie intake has to be equivalent to calorie output. Simply put, you should meet your calorie requirements. Calories come from four major macronutrients—carbohydrates, fat, protein, and alcohol. Of these, only alcohol is non-essential. You have to consume the right mix of carbohydrates, fat, and protein. If you’re unsure of how many calories you require, or how much of a particular type of food you should eat, check with your dietitian.
At times, treatment may affect your appetite and the amount of food you can eat. In times like these, focus on eating what you can stomach, and having enough of it to maintain your energy levels and weight. Some days, it may mean only being able to tolerate slices of bread with jam. On others, it may be craving your favourite fried noodles, or even fast food. If your appetite is so poor that those are the only foods you can eat, then go for it—it’s better than nothing. Thereafter, work closely with your dietitian to find foods that are healthful, while acceptable by your tastebuds. For dietary tips to address loss of appetite, and foods that can stimulate your appetite, check out this article. Remember, it is important to have sufficient amounts of food during cancer.
2. Protein is important for muscle mass, immune function, wound healing.
Protein plays a crucial role in maintaining your muscle mass and immune function. If you have to undergo surgery as part of cancer treatment, protein further lends its assistance by supporting wound healing.
Therefore, apart from having enough calories, you need to ensure that you consume sufficient protein as a part of it. Protein comes from food like meat, fish, chicken, tofu, eggs, milk, beans, and nuts. All foods have varying protein amounts. It is crucial that you are aware of your daily requirements and try to meet it through your food intake. If you are vegetarian or vegan, make sure that you consume a variety of vegetarian protein sources to obtain all the essential amino acids you require. Check out my other post here for mixing up vegetarian protein sources so you get all 9 essential amino acids.
Protein is an essential food during cancer treatment, so make sure you include protein at every meal, spread out throughout the day. To find out exactly how much protein you need to consume and how frequently to optimise muscle mass, read this post here.
3. Carbohydrates can help meet your calorie requirements
There are many articles on the internet that recommend restricting sugar, which is a form of carbohydrate, because cancer cells feed on sugar. However, the truth is, all cells—whether cancer or regular body cells, feed on sugar. By eliminating them from your diet, cancer cells will simply draw energy from fat and muscle stores in your body. What’s not surprising is that your body cells will do the same. If this happens over a prolonged period of time, your body will be in a state of negative energy. Remember, you need energy to fight cancer. You need it to maintain your strength and immune function after any chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or surgery that you undergo. Removing carbohydrates completely from your diet will probably decrease in your total calorie intake, resulting in weight loss.
At times, your appetite may be so poor that you can only sip on some fruit juice, or a sweetened barley drink made by your family. There’s no reason to feel guilty about it, or think it is “feeding the cancer cells”. Sugar is a source of calories, and in such instances, may be the only thing keeping your energy levels up at that point. While they should not form the bulk of your energy intake, take heart that they are helping you.
Of course, if you can, try to choose complex carbohydrates like oats, bread, rice, or noodles as your main form of carbohydrates. This is because they provide slow and sustained energy throughout the day, and do not cause spikes in your sugar levels like simple sugars in sweetened food or drinks. This is especially important if your sugar levels happen to be high due to pre-existing conditions or as a side effect of cancer.
4. Restrict raw foods if your immunity is compromised
At times, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or stem cell transplants may lower your white blood cell count, leading to a condition called neutropenia. This weakens the immune system. Your doctor may ask you to go on a neutropenic diet and avoid raw foods. This is basically a diet aimed to reduce the risk of bacteria that may be consumed through food.
If this is required for you, make sure you:
- Wash hands thoroughly before preparing food
- Avoid raw meat, fish, poultry, seafood, or deli meats
- Avoid unpasteurised dairy products and soft cheeses
- Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating/peeling
- Drink only clean filtered or boiled water
5. Consult your doctor or dietitian if you have specific dietary requirements
Just like how each individual’s cancer journey is different, each type of cancer is different as well. Dietary requirements can be a stark contrast between one cancer and another, depending on the cancer at question, or the stage it’s at. Some cancers may cause blockages in the intestinal tract and require you to have foods of specific textures. Other cancers may affect your body organs and have downstream effects. They may cause high sugar levels and require you to control the amount or type of carbohydrates you have eat. Or, you may be required to be placed on a low salt, fluid restricted diet. Otherwise, you may even never have to undergo such dietary restrictions!
Every patient is different. That is why online advice from a non-medical professional should not be taken at surface level and followed to a T. If generic advice not relevant to your situation is followed, you may end up over-restricting yourself, or worse still, doing more harm than good. If you’re unsure about the appropriateness of a particular food during cancer treatment, seek the advice of a health professional in your medical care team.