The Role of Nutrition in Cancer Outcomes


I've found that nutrition and healthy foods play an important role during cancer.

Illustration of a woman with a short bob with glasses.

I was surprised when I asked my good friend a question about eating healthy food. My friend is in her 60s and has stage 4 colon cancer. She’s an incredibly strong person who has fought her cancer long and hard, utilizing every treatment known. It’s almost been three years since she was diagnosed, and she’s outlived her survival expectations on multiple occasions.

I asked her, “Do you eat chicken breasts often?”

Her response was, “Oh no. I don’t eat meals.”

She went on to explain that she often stops by the pizza shops and gets breadsticks, and when she’s at the gas station, she goes into the store connected to the station and picks up a couple of bags of chips. She noticed that her first chemo took away her taste for much of anything except the cupcakes she was thankful to find in her freezer. Now she’s eating a lot of popsicles.

When I was receiving chemotherapy treatment for my stage 3B lung cancer, I was given a large binder full of information intended to support me through my cancer journey. There were a lot of nutritional facts, recipes and advice concerning what is best to eat; when it might be more easily digested. I referred to it occasionally, but I prioritized the quantity of relatively healthy foods. I am thin; quantity over quality nutritionally got my vote.

However, many patients in treatment are first and foremost in need of a better, stronger anti-nausea medicine.

Although health quality is something I usually think about as I prepare to eat a meal or snack, my first priority while in chemo was to try to drink water. Even that was challenging at times; small sips were the best plan. My second priority was to be able to digest the food I had chosen. Third, I would eat foods that were at least somewhat appealing. Fourth, if my first choice seemed to have no flavor or an unappetizing one, I tried to be open to choosing something else. Sometimes I watched a family member enjoy a hamburger or a banana and decided to try one or the other myself. None of that was easy for me; I have a long history of being a picky eater.

In the time I was in remission, I learned that two of my first cousins had been diagnosed with cancers of the digestive system. LC is my male cousin in treatment for pancreatic cancer The other, RK, my female cousin, has esophageal cancer. The good news is that they are both doing well. LC has had surgery that rearranged his abdomen, reducing the size of his stomach, to recreate his pancreas.

RK has, as of now, opted to not have the surgery which would result in part of her stomach being recreated as her esophagus. However, she still has problems with swallowing as a result of the radiation and chemo she received earlier in treatment. She will be having an endoscopic exam to see if there’s any remaining cancer present, at the bottom of her esophagus. 

Their situations bring to light additional nutrition issues for cancers of the digestive tract.

Before I finished writing this blog, I called my sister, a registered dietitian, and we talked for about 30 minutes. I familiarized her with my memories of eating through cancer, she let me know specific information about strengthening patients with good nutrition. My sister explained a method of helping an individual in cancer treatment to become better nourished by taking small steps to increase by one level the healthful content of very simple foods.

Two examples of this process are:

1) Level 1-Eat plain strawberry Jello. Thaw frozen strawberries, mixing them into the Jello when it’s made, Level 2- Eat Jello with mashed strawberries. Level 3-Eat strawberry Jello with mashed strawberries with a thin layer of low-fat vanilla yogurt.

2) Level 1-Eat plain mashed potatoes. Mix mild cheese into mashed potatoes. Level 2- Eat cheesy mashed potatoes. Dice ham or chicken in tiny pieces and add it to cheesy mashed potatoes. Level 3-Eat cheesy mashed potatoes with finely diced meat.

The support of a registered dietician is definitely important to a patient diagnosed with cancer of the digestive tract but any patient with cancer can benefit from making an appointment to see a dietitian, talking briefly with a nutrition specialist in the cancer center or at least talking to a registered dietician on the phone for a few minutes.

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