Malnutrition and Cancer – A Barrier to Recovery

March 12th, 2014 by Dr. Keith Nemec

As we all know, or should do by now, good nutrition is one of the basic building blocks of good health. This is never more true than when it comes to people battling any form of cancer. Cancer, and its attendant treatments, can often disrupt a person’s appetite as well as impair the body’s ability to absorb and process nutrients. It is estimated that at least 60% to 70% of cancer patients suffer from some degree of malnutrition. Cancer related malnutrition directly affects a patient’s progress during treatment, and can mean the difference between recovery and relapse. Because nutrition is such an important part of cancer treatment, patients and their caregivers must be constantly vigilant and mindful of the tell-tale signs of malnutrition.

The Impact of Malnutrition on Cancer Patients

Cancer related malnutrition impedes the body’s natural ability to heal itself. Denied the nutrients it needs to heal and repair itself, the body will be unable to successfully combat the cancer that is attacking it. Consequently, cancer patients experiencing any level of malnutrition will typically suffer setbacks during treatment, and endure a longer recovery time. In extreme cases, chronic malnutrition can undermine the patient’s treatment protocols entirely, making recovery and remission unlikely.

Cancer Symptoms That Can Impact Nutrition

There are a number of cancer related symptoms that can impact a patient’s diet and nutrition. Some cancers, particularly those that affect the digestive system, can make it difficult for the body to process and absorb nutrients even when the patient’s appetite remains healthy and unsuppressed. Other forms of cancer will often disrupt the patient’s appetite, or make it physically difficult for them to eat. It is vital that patients and their caregivers recognize these symptoms early so that steps can be taken to ensure that optimal nutritional levels are maintained. Some of the most common cancer related symptoms that can lead to malnutrition include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Nausea
  • Changes in taste or smell
  • Mouth ulcers or difficulty swallowing
  • Recurring diarrhea and/or vomiting

These symptoms are common to a variety of different cancers, and are often regarded as a necessary evil that must be endured throughout the recovery process. While this may be true to some extent, the ultimate effect of these symptoms can lead to the type of cancer related malnutrition that can seriously impact a person’s response to treatment and undermine their ultimate recovery.

Tips for Fighting Cancer Related Malnutrition

If you, or someone in your care, is experiencing any of the symptoms discussed above it is important to address them immediately. The sooner nutrient levels are restored, the better the response to any given cancer treatment. Consider the following tips for avoiding cancer related malnutrition.

  • Find a Nutritional Support Team – A doctor who specializes in nutrition and diet, and who has experience working with cancer patients. This doctor can design a low inflammation and high nutrient diet, along with making recommendations of necessary vitamin or mineral supplements that will help boost the body’s nutritional intake.
  • Change the Patient’s Eating Pattern – If the patient’s appetite is better in the morning, for example, prepare major meals earlier in the day. Larger meals can often be difficult for cancer patients. Instead of two to three larger meals, transition to a more frequent series of small meals and snacks throughout the day. Timed to coincide with a more robust appetite.
  • Make Healthier Food Choices – A well balanced diet will help the body heal itself, and will reinforce the efficacy of any treatment. Transition to a predominantly vegetarian diet, with an emphasis on organic vegetables, seeds, nuts, and avocados with most of the diet being living and or raw plant material. Remember that animals in nature do not cook their food and they do not get the diseases that people do.
  • Avoid Unhealthy Habits – Eliminate processed foods. They offer little nutritional value and can actually impede the body’s ability to process the nutrients it is receiving. Avoid alcohol, which can lead to dehydration and adversely affect appetite. Smoking should also be avoided, as it can damage taste buds, making good food less appealing.
  • Stay Hydrated – Dehydration is common amongst cancer patients, and can lead to constipation and nausea. Drink plenty of pure water at least 8 cups throughout the day to help keep the body hydrated.
  • Be Creative – Try different foods, and different food combinations to help engage the patient’s appetite. Use spices and herbs to improve the food’s flavor. Make mealtime interesting by varying the times, locations, or surroundings.

As we know, good nutrition is vital to maintaining the body’s total health, and avoiding cancer related malnutrition is an important step along the path to recovery. This begins with the right food choices and those choices should be ones that promote health and healing.

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