When thinking about recovery from cancer, the first thing most people think of is the harsh treatments, including chemotherapy and radiation. The second is dealing with the side effects from the treatments themselves.
In our Q&A, Maureen Huhmann, Global R&D Lead, Acute Care at Nestlé Health Science and Past Chair, Oncology Dietetic Practice Group of Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says that the right nutritional therapy plays a key role in recovery from cancer.
In our Staying Empowered While Fighting Cancer article, we heard the story of Andy J., who used BOOST® Very High Calorie (VHC) and BOOST® drinks for nutrition during recovery from head and neck cancer.
How do chemotherapy and radiation treatments affect appetite?
The side effects that often come from chemotherapy and radiation therapy for cancer can affect a person’s appetite in a number of ways, making it difficult for a patient to get the right nutrition during recovery. Here is a list of potential side effects that may impact a patient’s ability or desire to eat.
Radiation treatment can cause a condition called mucositis. This results from the daily radiation treatment to the intestinal tract. Picture mucositis like a burn to the mouth, stomach or intestine, making eating very painful, and thereby limiting the ability to chew and swallow food to keep nourished.
The taste buds are very sensitive to chemotherapy and radiation treatment and a patient’s ability to taste may change—or it may disappear altogether.
It is reported that 80% of patients with head and neck cancer experience pain. Some manage it by numbing the surface of the mouth with medication, but strong narcotics may be necessary. Eating and swallowing can become so painful that many patients opt for a feeding tube.
DRY MOUTH (Xerostomia)
Dry mouth is the most common side effect of radiation to the head and neck. This can persist long term and may be permanent.
Chemotherapy and sometimes radiation therapy can cause nausea and vomiting. Oncologists try to anticipate this and will prescribe medications to minimize nausea and vomiting as much as possible. Sometimes this requires combinations of medications, depending upon when and for how long the nausea occurs. Nausea can interfere with consuming the types and quantity of nutrition necessary.
OTHER SIDE EFFECTS
Many patients report serious side effects including weight loss, loss of appetite, fatigue, dehydration, etc.
Why is losing weight such a big problem for cancer patients?
With the treatment side effects listed above, it is no wonder patients with cancer can lose vast amounts of weight, which can be problematic as it can complicate treatment. Sometimes treatments are decreased, skipped or stopped if the weight loss gets to be too great. For example, chemotherapy is dosed on the patient's weight and height, so if weight decreases, the dose of chemotherapy also needs to be decreased.
Using Nutritional Supplementation
What are some tips for cancer patients trying to gain or maintain weight?
Here are our Top Three Tips for healthy weight gain by getting the right nutrition during recovery:
It seems Andy used a focus on nutrition to not only recover physically but to keep himself mentally strong. Is that common?
Recovery from cancer can seem to strip away all your sense of control. We had one patient tell us: “I was like a small child that needed care. I felt useless.” So many people with cancer double down on what they can control and that is often their diet. And with the numerous options available today, there are nutritional strategies they can put into play immediately.
What were some of Andy’s nutritional strategies?
During Andy’s treatment, if he wasn’t able to eat, he knew he could get the calories and balanced nutrition he needed by supplementing his diet 4x a day with BOOST® VHC and BOOST® drinks. He also stayed active by doing chores around the house and going to the gym.
Today, Andy starts each day with a breakfast smoothie by adding fruit to a BOOST® drink.
Want to learn more about cancer care and nutrition during recovery?
Get more tips on how to use nutritional supplementation during cancer treatment and recovery.