Nutrition’s Role in Your Health

Generally we understand nutrition as balancing the right kind of foods in the right amounts for good health. However, nutrition may not be first thing on your mind when you’re dealing with cancer. However, it plays a crucial role in your health before, during and after cancer treatment, so it’s important to learn about the benefits of proper nutrition—as well as the dangers of malnutrition.

The scientific community has made great strides in recent decades identifying several foods with the power to fight potential cancer-causing substances. A well-balanced diet can ensure you’re getting adequate amounts of these phytochemicals and antioxidants, which have been proven to fight and prevent cancer. Some of these have the ability to identify toxins in the body and remove them before they can cause damage, and others may halt the reproduction of cancer cells. Even after a cancer diagnosis, many of these helpful compounds may be able to make repairs to cells as you’re being treated for your disease.

Nutrition needs vary from person to person, especially when cancer is involved. Nevertheless, science has proven that combining a healthy diet with physical activity may improve your body’s ability to fight and recover from cancer.

Improving cancer treatment

What you eat can greatly impact your risk of disease (including cancer), and some research indicates that better nutrition might even increase the success rate of your cancer treatment. Unfortunately, many of the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation – such as changes in taste, difficulty swallowing, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea – can cause weight loss and decrease the amount of nutrients you’re able to take in. Because significant changes in weight during treatment can sometimes slow down or stop treatment, maintaining a healthy weight is even more important.

A single nutrient deficiency can also impair your immune system and force an interruption in your treatment schedule, so choose foods with plenty of vitamins and minerals. The success of your treatment depends on your ability to stick to the treatment plan, so it’s important to do everything you can to make that possible.

Not only is proper nutrition beneficial during treatment, it may also help your body after treatment is complete, including a faster recovery from surgeries and invasive treatments.

Dangers of malnutrition

Malnutrition occurs when a deficiency, excess or imbalance of energy, protein and other nutrients negatively affects body function. As many as 85 percent of cancer patients experience weight loss or malnutrition at some point, in large part for these three reasons:

  • Side effects such as nausea, vomiting and constipation diminish appetite.
  • The body can’t metabolize nutrients as well as normal.
  • It requires a tremendous amount of energy for your body to fight and recover from many cancers.

When your food intake is low, your body will use whatever energy stores it has (such as fat and muscle) to keep up with demand. This can lead to decreased muscle and immune function, and once severe weight loss begins, it can be difficult to reverse.

Malnutrition can lead to a decreased quality of life and an increased risk for complications. It can also disrupt treatment, which can jeopardize the treatment’s success and your chances for recovery. Your health care team may suggest that you increase your caloric and protein intake using food or liquid nutritional supplements as you continue treatment. Some patients may even require nutrition therapy (tube feedings) or even intravenous nutrition to stop the dramatic effects of malnutrition. While not usually permanent, these techniques may be temporarily necessary to combat malnutrition.

No matter where you are in your cancer journey, remember that nutrition is one of the most vital components of your health care. Talk to your dietitian and/or doctor early and often about your nutritional health status. Inform your team about any weight gain or loss as you progress through treatment so they can better track your progress and your ongoing nutritional needs and make changes accordingly.

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