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What to Know About Nutrition Therapy During Cancer Treatment


An oncology dietitian offered advice on how to improve appetite and eat healthy before, during and after treatment for gastrointestinal cancers.

An individual’s focus on nutrition therapy during treatment for gastrointestinal cancers can aid outcomes and improve quality of life, according to Rachel Wong, an oncology dietitian at the Georgetown University Hospital, Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“With (gastrointestinal) cancers there are a lot of potential side effects that can occur from the cancer itself or from the treatment,” she explained at the Fourth Annual GI Cancer Patient Summit. “So, the most important thing I talk to my patients about is weight maintenance and maintaining muscle mass…we really want to try to do as much as we can to make sure you don’t lose any more weight and gain some weight back.”

During and after cancer treatment, Wong added, the goals of nutrition are to proactively manage treatment-related side effects; to preserve nutrition that the body stores and prevent weight loss; to consume adequate macro- and micronutrients that are needed to optimize nutritional status; to reduce the risk for cancer recurrence, secondary cancers or chronic disease; and to maximize quality of life.

To start, a healthy eating plate consists of the following:

  • Healthy oils, such as olive and canola oil
  • Limited butter and avoiding trans fat
  • More vegetables — the greater the variety the better
  • Plenty of fruits of all colors
  • Water, tea or coffee (with little or no sugar)
  • Limited milk/dairy (one to two servings per day) and juice (one small glass per day), avoiding sugary drinks
  • A variety of whole grains, such as whole-wheat bread, whole-grain pasta and brown rice
  • Limited refined grains, such as white rice and white bread
  • Fish, poultry, beans and nuts
  • Limited red meat and cheese, avoiding bacon, cold cuts and other processed meats

During treatment, Wong recommends for patients to plan and prepare meals in advance. “This is something you can do for yourself,” she added. “Medication and things like that have to be managed by the doctor, but you have a hand in eating and preparing your food and planning your day out. That is something that can help you significantly.”

In addition, Wong recommends for patients to choose high protein and calorie foods; drink at least 64 oz. of water daily; add snacks between meals, especially if one is feeling full quickly; try different sauces for more variety in foods; set goals; and keep a food log.

Beside maintaining a healthy diet, Wong added that combatting symptoms like depression could also assist with nutrition issues.

“Oftentimes, (depression) causes you to stay at home and not want to go out and do things. So, I spend a lot of time telling patients to do things to improve their mood like going for a walk and getting some sunlight instead of staying in bed all day,” she said. “These aren’t direct nutrition-related suggestions, but they in turn affect how you eat. You feel better, you feel stronger, you eat better.”

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