4 Ways Premier Health Dietitians Help Cancer Patients

Good nutrition is always important. During cancer treatment, it’s critically important that you maintain a healthy, well-balanced diet.

“If you’re well-nourished, you’re going to respond better to your treatment and you’re going to recover faster,” says Deborah Slack, MBA, RDN, LD, director of nutrition services at Premier Health. “You’ll be better able to fight off cancer because your immune system functions better when you’re well-nourished.”

To help cancer patients benefit from the advantages of a nutritionally rich diet, Premier Health dietitians support patients and their families during inpatient hospital care, outpatient care and even at home, when patients are unable to go to appointments.

Dietitians help in the following ways:

Develop nutrition care plans. First, dietitians evaluate each patient’s current diet. They identify nutritional deficits, then create a plan to fill the gaps and provide the full range of nutrients required for good health and a robust immune system.

Dietitians develop diets tailored to each patient. Each type of cancer and cancer treatment requires different diet modifications. For instance, some cancers feed on sugar. Head and neck cancers hinder chewing ability, requiring alternatives such as liquid diets and tube feeding to assure adequate nutrition.

“The main objective of nutritional counseling during cancer treatment is to prevent malnutrition, which weakens patients,” Slack says.

Solve dietary challenges. Cancer and cancer treatments affect patients’ taste, smell, appetite and ability to eat enough food and absorb enough nutrients. So, dietitians identify ways to work around these and other challenges:

  • Finding nutritious foods that agree with patients’ sense of taste that’s been altered by chemotherapy. Slack says, “You might not like tomato soup normally, but with the effects of chemotherapy, tomato soup might taste good to you. Sometimes it’s a matter of trial and error.”
  • Offering smaller portions, as chemotherapy may cause nausea. “You might look at a full plate of food and think, ‘I can’t even start.’ Where if served a tiny dish, you could always have more later.”
  • Providing a wide range of creative solutions to help patients get the nutrition they need despite the side effects of their illness and treatment. A few examples: oral supplements, home-made milkshakes, fruit smoothies, protein powders added to drinks, clear liquid supplements frozen into ice cubes or popsicles.
  • Managing the complicated dietary needs of cancer patients with pre-existing chronic conditions, such as diabetes. Slack points out that a person with diabetes may need special dietary attention to promote healing of cancer surgery incisions.
  • Developing diets for adolescents on chemotherapy, to help them fight off cancer plus get the nutrients they need for normal growth and development.
  • Addressing the needs of patients who continue working through cancer treatment. “They just can’t get enough to eat during the day, while they’re working, because they’re nauseated, dizzy or their mouth hurts,” Slack explains. So, they receive nighttime tube feedings. “While they’re sleeping, they’ll be nourished, and whatever they eat during the day, that’s just a bonus.”

Educate patients and families. This includes instruction on good nutrition and food safety.

Cancer weakens the immune system, increasing risk of food poisoning. “You’d be surprised how many people think it’s OK that their hamburger and potato salad sat out for four hours at a picnic, and they can put it in the fridge to eat tomorrow,” Slack says. “In general that’s not good food safety, but when you have someone in the family that’s fighting cancer that can be an absolute nightmare.”

She adds, “Some people just need information on what a nutritious diet is because they live on fast food.”

Counsel family caregivers. Family caregivers play an essential role in cancer care. They often accompany loved ones to treatment and nutrition counseling sessions. While their loved ones may be weakened and tired from their illness and chemotherapy, family caregivers are better able to follow health care providers’ instructions, and take notes.

“When you’re on chemo, sometimes your brain gets foggy, so you can’t remember as much and think as clearly as you normally do,” Slack explains.

Premier Health dietitians encourage family members to attend nutrition counseling, because they are usually the ones buying the groceries, preparing and serving food, and encouraging the patient to eat. Family caregivers help carry out the nutrition care plan developed by the dietitians.

“You need a support system when you’re too tired to eat,” Slack says. She adds, “Many patients live alone, so it’s nice to have someone to come over and eat with you.”

Source: Deborah Slack, MBA, RDN, LD, director of nutrition services at Premier Health, Premier Health; National Cancer Institute

Content Updated: August 16, 2018

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