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Can diet make a difference to how cancer patients feel during cancer treatment?

wellbeing wellness Apr 09, 2021
diet for cancer patients - ginger tea

We know that at any given time diet is a big part of our health and wellbeing, affecting how we feel both physically and emotionally. As with so many things, what we eat can become more challenging and more loaded following a cancer diagnosis.

The most important thing to realise is that while diet may be a contributor to long-term health in many respects, a cancer patient neither has cancer because of any given item that they have been eating, and nor is what they eat going to cure cancer. While there may be data showing how some foods contribute to cancer risks or helping to prevent it, it’s a dangerous space to move into blame or promises at either end of this spectrum.

If you read our recent article on essential oils for cancer patients, you will see our reference to debunking the myth that consuming frankincense oil (we never recommend consuming essential oils for any reason) has curative effects for cancer. Jennifer has mentioned in webinars before that she continues to be haunted by the memory of a client who had been given cruelly false hope in this ‘miracle’ cure that was unsubstantiated and unsupported. That said, much like essential oils, what we consume can be powerful in supporting mind and body during and after cancer treatment.

For those of us in the spa industry, our role is in offering support for wellbeing through this challenging time. In particular, that hinges on helping those we work with to feel better. While our role may not directly relate to diet, having an understanding of the role it can play in helping to relieve the side effects of certain cancer treatments can help you to empathise with clients as well as share in discussions with them about the journey they are on, even if that’s the difference between which herbal tea you offer post-treatment.

What counts as ‘healthy eating’ during cancer treatment?

What we think of as healthy eating in general, and what we think of as healthy eating during cancer treatment is not wildly different. However, there are some differences that take into account issues such as infection risks or a high chance of food poisoning due to those who are immunocompromised by cancer treatments.

The American Cancer Society says that:

“Most nutrition guidelines stress eating lots of vegetables, fruits, and whole-grain products; limiting the amount of red meat you eat, especially meats that are processed or high in fat; cutting back on fat, sugar, alcohol, and salt; and staying at a healthy weight.”

Cancer.net suggests that it’s best to avoid foods like cold hot dogs, cured meats, raw or undercooked fish (sushi) or meat, re-heated meat or rice, unpasteurised milk products, soft cheeses, raw eggs or certain shellfish - especially those that are high in mercury. It’s important to realise that this is one recommendation as part of the conversation and not a prohibitive list of dos and don’ts. The only time a cancer patient (or anyone) needs to completely avoid any food item is if your doctor tells you to.

Information produced by Cancer.gov provides a very detailed guide to eating during and after cancer treatment, taking into consideration some of the different wants and needs of different individuals, types of cancer and types of treatment. It’s such an enormously varied area of conversation, that not only includes what is generally perceived to be healthy, but also what helps to relieve the side effects of cancer treatments, possibly help manage some of the symptoms of cancer itself, give you energy and support your emotional and mental wellbeing as well as your short- and long-term physical health.

What are the barriers to healthy eating during cancer treatment?

While healthy eating at any time, but especially when you’re trying your best to support your body through cancer, sounds logical, cancer can often make you feel too unwell to consume certain foods. It may cause nausea or stomach sensitivity, and cancer treatment can cause taste changes or mean a need to eat things that are not usually associated with good health.

For example, chemotherapy can cause sickness, which may mean you prefer to stick to very bland, ‘beige’ foods like white bread, or cool foods like ice cream or milkshakes might be your go-to because sores in your mouth and throat make it hard to eat anything else. Even surgery can affect what and how you eat. For example, a colostomy for bowel cancer may limit the amount of fibre you can consume, especially if you have a stoma bag for any period of time.

While we hasten to reiterate that it is not ever our place to advise or prescribe any eating habits as a therapist unless you are appropriately qualified, for the purposes of appreciating our clients and their current circumstance, understanding the options, challenges and potential role that food and drink can play in helping to support someone through cancer, is extremely important. We know if someone is suffering from nausea that essential oils such as cardamom and ginger can be extremely soothing. Similarly, something as simple as offering a post-therapy ginger tea could be the empathetic display of consideration that’s exactly what your client needs at that time.

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