A healthy diet is vital to maintain a good baseline of health and wellbeing during cancer treatment and afterwards. Emerging evidence suggests that diet and weight management as well as regular physical activity are linked to better survival rates, diminished cancer recurrence for those in remission and even disease prevention.
For some people diet can be a touchy subject – everyone has an opinion and there’s a great deal of information and misinformation circulating about what foods should be eaten and those which should be avoided. An accredited dietitian can help you make informed decisions about your diet and suggest strategies for managing symptoms and treatment side effects such as changes to appetite, nutrient malabsorption and taste perversion.
Oncology nutrition is the application of nutrition and dietetics principles to help cancer patients maintain adequate nutrition during their cancer journey. Many people who face a cancer diagnosis may be unsure of what they should or should not be eating. For instance, some people are unsure whether they should exclude foods such as sugar, dairy or meat from their diet or whether they should take particular nutritional supplements. An oncology nutritionist will look at your individual circumstances – your diagnosis, nutritional status and conventional care plan – and tailor an eating plan to help meet your needs.
Consultations with an accredited dietitian can help you manage the symptoms and side effects of your cancer and its treatment with strategic dietary choices. As well as improving your wellbeing, an appropriately managed diet can make you stronger and healthier and enable you to better tolerate the often-draining treatments of chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
What will oncology nutrition do for me?
Oncology nutrition can support you on your cancer journey by:
- Helping you manage the symptoms and side effect of cancer and treatment.
- Improving your overall wellbeing and health so that you can better tolerate invasive or draining treatments.
- Helping you maintain a healthy weight and good diet which are key elements of a recurrence prevention strategy.
As a result of your treatments or the symptoms of the disease itself, you may experience a range of changes to your diet, appetite and nutritional status following your diagnosis, through treatment even after. Symptoms and treatment side effects such as dry mouth, changes to taste and appetite, nausea, diarrhoea and vomiting, can all lead to poor nutrient intake and absorption. Oncology nutrition can help you to overcome these challenges and ensure your diet and nutritional status support healing and responsiveness to treatment.
Nutrition and malabsorption
Patients who are able to achieve an adequate nutritional intake have been shown to do better during their treatment as being properly nourished helps support the immune system and can help prevent treatment delays. Unfortunately, some of the effects of cancer treatment such as loss or change of taste, mouth sores or dry mouth, or an inability to keep food down can lead to poor food intake resulting in reduced nutritional status. An accredited dietitian can develop an eating plan to ensure you receive adequate nourishment despite any side effects you might experience, or prescribe supplements to boost your nutrient levels.
Nutrition and weight management
The importance of maintaining a healthy weight is paramount during and after cancer treatment. Being very over- or underweight can increase the risks associated with some treatments and lead to poor tolerances of some medications.
Cancer and its treatment can have incredibly varied effects on body weight between individual patients. Weight gain can be caused by the medications or by changes in food intake and activity levels, while dramatic weight loss may be a symptom of the cancer itself or the medications used to treat it.
The importance of maintaining a healthy weight is highlighted by scientific research which shows that maintaining a healthy weight is associated with improved long term survival and quality of life. In addition, people who gain weight have also been shown to have an increased risk of other lifestyle diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Working with an accredited dietitian can help you manage your weight before, during and after treatment as well as help you respond to any weight fluctuations that occur as a result of your treatment plan.
General benefits of good nutrition
- Weight management
- Improved overall wellbeing
- Increased energy levels
- Better tolerance of and responsiveness to some medications and treatments
- Disease and recurrence prevention
- Improved immunity
Are there any risks?
The risks associated with diet and nutrition relate mostly to poor management or lifestyle choices. Taking vitamins and supplements without consulting a dietitian or physician first can also pose some risks such as interference with medications.
All Lifehouse LivingRoom nutritional consultations are provided by accredited practising dietitians with a special interest and experience in treating cancer patients.
Who is my dietician?
Lara Mathers is a Senior Dietitian at Chris O’Brien Lifehouse. She completed a Bachelor of Science Nutrition (Honours Class I) at the University of Sydney in 2009. In her new graduate year, Lara took a position in rural NSW for two years as a clinical dietitian based with the Barwon Division of General Practice working with local medical officers (LMOs) and attending medical officers (AMOs) in clinics and small hospitals across the region from Tamworth to Moree. In 2012, Lara returned to Sydney and joined the Nutrition and Dietetics Department at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (RPAH).
After working with the Head and Neck team during her time at RPAH, Lara realised her passion lay within Oncology nutrition. Lara moved from RPAH to the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse as a senior dietitian in early 2016.
Lara works closely with the Head and Neck multidisciplinary team, providing medical nutrition therapy for patients pre-treatment, during treatment and post-treatment. Additionally, Lara is involved in the nutrition care of many other patient groups during their surgery and/or treatment at Lifehouse.
She is passionate about working in Oncology, evidence-based practice and supporting patients with appropriate nutrition interventions during a challenging time in their lives.
Nutrition is such an important part of your overall health and wellbeing, especially when you’re undergoing or recovering from cancer treatment. But there is a lot of information out there and it can be difficult to navigate.
As Laura Wilmott, one of Lifehouse’s accredited practicing dietitians, says: “A lot of people do their own research about nutrition and cancer which is great, as long as they’re looking in the right places.”
Here are some websites Laura recommends:
- Cancer Council NSW – managing nutrition related side effects
- Cancer Council NSW – staying healthy after treatment
- iheard – a website run by the Cancer Council that discusses myths and facts relating to cancer
- About Herbs, Botanicals and Other Products – a website that provides detailed information about the use of herbs when undergoing cancer treatment
Looking for good recipes? Laura recommends:
- Cancer Council
- Eat for Health
- Taste – Healthy Recipes
- Australian Healthy Food Guide