Family caregivers play a major role in a cancer patient’s journey to recovery. They shoulder a myriad of responsibilities from helping the patient attend doctor appointments, to providing emotional support, to tending to the nutritional needs of the patient.
Nutrition can be a challenge during cancer treatment. Is there any truth to the claims that a ketogenic or alkaline diet can beat cancer? (Research claims are debatable.) Do natural supplements help fight cancer? (Supplements may, in fact, interact with medications, making the treatment less effective.) We talked to Lorraine Grote Johnson, R.N., Director of Care Quality at Right at Home, about the role nutrition plays in cancer care.
Loss of Appetite in Cancer Patients
“Cancer treatment changes the cells in a patient’s system,” says Grote Johnson. “Chemotherapy affects the gastrointestinal (GI) tracts—patients often feel irritation and soreness in their mouth during treatment. Their taste buds may not function appropriately. So some just don’t want to eat. They could have nausea and trouble swallowing as well as issues with vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, pain, and even anxiety.” Any of these factors may also contribute to a decrease in appetite.
Speak to the Doctor About the Patient’s Diet
Grote Johnson also recommends that patients and caregivers keep a good record of the food eaten and medications taken. “Discuss with the doctors, and find out if the medications affect nutrient intake and loss,” says Grote Johnson. She further explains that while some medications get rid of certain electrolytes in the system, some can prevent them from leaving the body.
“Make sure the doctor is aware of changes (in the diet),” continues Grote Johnson. “Let’s say the patient has a lot of diarrhea—caregivers should not give them anything to stop that unless the doctor prescribes an anti-diarrheal.”
Consultation With an Oncology Dietitian
“My best advice for any cancer patient and their family is to stay in touch with a registered dietician,” Grote Johnson says. “Dieticians work hand in hand with cancer centers. They are able to prescribe a certain diet depending on the type of cancer and treatment, and then suggest alternatives based on a patient’s food preferences and any other underlying diagnoses they may have.”
Oral Care Maintenance
While eating enough quality food is a major concern of cancer patients and their families, many neglect the importance of oral health. “Food may taste slightly better if the patient keeps the teeth and tongue clean,” says Grote Johnson. “Instead of using a toothbrush, which can hurt the gums, some people may want to use a water flosser, which is much gentler. Choose a mouthwash that doesn’t have any alcohol in it to avoid causing increased irritation and soreness. There are all kinds of products that are specifically for a sensitive mouth, teeth and gums.”
- Light exercise can increase appetite. Even if it’s only getting out for a walk, it’s beneficial for the patient to get fresh air and take their mind off their inability to eat.
- Eat with someone for company and encouragement.
- Maintain good hygiene by thoroughly washing hands and food, as the patient’s immune system is down.
- Consume more protein to help cellular regeneration.
- Prepare soft, bland food as it is easier to chew and digest.
- Yogurt, both frozen and plain, is good for the patient as it contains active yeast cultures that help keep the GI system in balance.
- Foods high in sugar can accelerate the growth of tumor and cancer. But in situations where the patient is not eating, having some calories is still better than none at all.
But Grote Johnson cautions that if a patient is receiving palliative or hospice care, it may be best to not insist that the patient eats. “Always consult with a doctor,” says Grote Johnson.