Ensuring Your Body Gets the Nutrition it Needs

To give the body proper nutrition, a person has to eat and drink enough of the foods that contain key nutrients. Cancer and treating it can take a toll on your body. It can also make it difficult to consume all of the nutrition you need to fight cancer and recover because many cancer treatments kill healthy cells as well as cancer cells. As a result, your body needs more nutrients to replenish the healthy cells that support you before, during or after treatment to prevent weight loss, maintain your strength and energy, tolerate the side effects of treatment better, reduce your risk of infections and recover faster.

Understanding Malnutrition

Cancer, treatment and side effects may cause malnutrition, a condition caused by not getting enough calories or the right amount of key nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals. Malnutrition may occur when there is a lack of nutrients in the diet or when the body cannot absorb nutrients from food. It is surprisingly common and has been reported in 30 to 85 percent of cancer patients. Symptoms may include feeling tired and weak, and may be severe enough to prevent you from completing treatment. If you are unable to eat or don’t want to eat, you may not be able to give your body the nutrients it needs, which may lead to weight and muscle loss. Two common causes of malnutrition are anorexia and cachexia, which may occur individually or at the same time.

Anorexia is an abnormal loss of the appetite for food. It can be caused by cancer, other illnesses or a mental disorder, such as anorexia nervosa. The majority of malnutrition in cancer patients is caused by anorexia.

Cachexia is the loss of body weight and muscle mass, and weakness that may occur in patients with cancer or other chronic diseases. It can occur even if you are eating plenty of food but your body is unable to store the fat due to the growth of the tumor. Tumors can affect the way the body uses and processes nutrients, particularly protein, carbohydrates and fat, which is why doctors and dietitians recommend eating more protein and calories during treatment.

If eating is difficult for these or other reasons, alternative options exist.

Enteral nutrition, also known as tube feeding, is a technique used when you simply cannot eat enough or food is not able to reach your stomach (due to a head and neck cancer, for example). A tube may be placed directly into your abdomen and into the stomach or intestine. A liquid formula can then be infused (delivered through the tube) directly into your body. The formula can be infused in several “meals” throughout the day, or a specific amount can be delivered over a certain amount of time through the use of a special pump.

In the hospital, your health care team will manage this for you. If you need to continue (or begin) this type of feeding at home, a member of your team will train you on the process.

Parenteral nutrition may be an option if your digestive tract is not working, or when a blockage is present. In this type of feeding, the nutrients you need, including vitamins, minerals, calories and protein, are delivered intravenously (through a vein), usually through a port that is surgically inserted.

The Importance of Water

Your body needs water to function and to prevent dehydration, which can lead to other problems. Daily fluid needs vary from person to person based on health, activity level and geographic area. The general recommendation is 10 cups of water per day for men and eight cups for women. Although you get some water from the foods you eat, such as fruits, vegetables, soup and ice cream, and from fluids, such as milk, soups and broth, it’s not enough.

Do your best to consume more fluids, including water, if you experience side effects such as diarrhea or vomiting, as they may cause you to lose additional fluid, increasing your risk for dehydration. If diarrhea is severe, you may not be able to absorb plain water, and your doctor may recommend a specialized oral rehydration solution. Talk to your doctor or dietitian for more information.

Beware of Fad Diets

There is no shortage of specialized diet plans, each promising extraordinary results or the “cure for cancer.” Beware of any eating plan that promises a quick fix, or one that ignores basic nutrition. These diets are usually not sustainable over the long term, and the best option involves a shift in your overall approach to nutrition. By adopting healthier habits regarding food, you can establish a more nutritious lifestyle that will take you into survivorship.