Having a cancer diagnosis often prompts us to look at the things we can do to help ourselves - including nutrition. Many of you reading this may already be eating a healthy diet. For others it can be a time for looking at the foods you eat and identifying any changes you can make.
There is much written about cancer and nutrition, and you may find you’re being given different and conflicting advice. You may read about a range of diets and food regimes people follow - and the information can feel overwhelming.
Some cancers and their treatments can cause problems with eating and drinking, just at a time when you want to eat well. You may worry if you lose or gain weight, for example, or perhaps you have no appetite at present. There may also be specific medical diets suggested because of the type of cancer or treatment you have.
Here you can find out more about what eating well means - and how to look after yourself nutritionally during and after treatment. Maggie’s Centres offer nutritional advice and support and can help demystify the wide range of information available.
What does 'eating well' mean?
If you or someone you care about has a cancer diagnosis, you may be wondering what can be done to help keep as well as possible. Eating healthily can be a useful first step. It helps maintain general physical well being - and can be something positive to do for yourself as you deal with the cancer.
Having cancer and having treatment can affect appetite and our ability to eat well. You may be struggling to eat, putting on or losing weight or simply want to improve your diet. There may be times when you don’t feel hungry, especially if you’re stressed, and you may be being given lots of conflicting advice and information about nutrition.
It’s often small, basic steps which can help, without putting too much pressure on you at a stressful time. There are good reasons why eating well helps during cancer and its treatment:-
- It helps you build up strength and maintain energy levels
- Makes sure you’re getting all the vital nutrients to help repair your body
- Can help you manage some of the side effects you may be experiencing
- Helps prevent infections and build up your immunity
- It can help make you feel better and improve your wellbeing.
It can help to think of five basic food groups - vegetables and fruit, protein, whole grains, milk and dairy, and fats and oils. Eating a wide variety of foods, particularly vegetables helps us get the daily nutrients we need. Occasional treats are still something to look forward to - cutting down on sugar, salt and alcohol is advisable, but you still need to spoil yourself now and again.
Having cancer can change nutritional needs - you may find that some medications such as hormone therapy, steroids, etc, can add to weight gain, for example. Enforced periods of inactivity whilst tired from treatment, and well meaning gifts of comfort food can be a problem.
For some people, weight loss is the issue, with treatment side effects and the cancer itself affecting appetite - using up calories when you don’t feel up to eating.
Other impacts can be taste changes, nausea, stress and anxiety, and bowel changes. Much of a healthy diet has a high fibre content, just at the point when for some, a low residue diet is recommended.
If you’re living with advanced cancer, it may be difficult, physically and emotionally, to eat. Appetite may be reduced, and the weight loss you may experience can be a reminder of the effect cancer is having on you.
Eating well - what you can do
There is an overwhelming amount of information available on nutrition and eating well through cancer. You may be bombarded by well meaning advice on an array of alternative, restrictive diets and be getting conflicting messages. Here are some tips to help with your concerns about eating well:-
- Making small changes to your diet is a good start and might feel more manageable. Healthy eating will benefit the whole family, so if you all join in with the changes, it can be supportive.
- Think ‘rainbow’ foods - fruit and vegetables in a wide range of colours, each of which brings specific benefits. Cut down on ‘beige’ - which includes fried, processed and foods of poor nutritional value.
- Fill the freezer and cupboards with healthy, nutritious foods - it can focus the mind on the days pre-treatment, and be a source of ready foods and someting others can help with if you’re feeling temporarily unwell with treatment side effects.
- Have a good clear out of foods that are processed, have poor nutritional value, and possibly be a temptation.
- Ask the hospital for any information they may have on healthy eating and specific nutritional needs with your particular cancer and treatment. For example, during some treatments which lower your immune system, you may need to take extra precautions with certain foods - including preparation and cooking.
- Ask for an expert opinion - through your hospital team, GP, and specialist nurse for example. Many of the problems you’re experiencing they will have come across before - and can refer you to a dietician to discuss your specific issues.
- Don’t put yourself under pressure to eat - if your appetite is temporarily dulled (which may happen, particularly when stressed - at point of diagnosis for example). If it’s an ongoing problem then seek expert advice, but a temporary loss of appetite can happen - at points in treatment and beyond. Relax, drink plenty of fluids and only be concerned if it goes on for a number of days.
- Vitamins and supplements - eating a wide ranging, healthy diet should provide all the nutrients you need. If you’re thinking of taking any additional supplements, vitamins, etc - do check with your healthcare team, as some can interfere with your cancer treatment.
- Nutritional advice and support is available in our Maggie’s Centres- ask about our ‘eating well’ workshops. Books and literature are available on a range of nutrition topics, and we can help you make sense of complex nutritional advice.
When to seek further help
If you find you are losing weight rapidly, have a poor appetite, or having difficulty eating - do tell your doctor. They may refer you to a dietitian, prescribe some supplementary nutrition in liquid form or medication to stimulate appetite. They can also check out what is causing the symptoms.
If anything about your eating or drinking is affecting your mood - adding to symptoms of anxiety and depression, speak to your healthcare team. Food is an emotive subject, and it can sometimes become a focus of tension and worry.