The Tricky Things about Nutrition and Cancer

Nutrition is a huge part of providing strength, recovery, staying well, and getting well for any patient. For cancer patients, nutrition is an important part of fighting the disease. Both the illness and the treatments affect a cancer patient’s appetite and body’s ability to use nutrients. There is an increasing focus on nutrition in cancer treatment. For example, see the American Cancer Society's resource page about nutrition for people with cancer and the National Institute of Health (NIH) National Cancer Institute's pages summarizing nutrition in cancer care and nutrition therapy in cancer care, which helps to find and treat nutrition problems early or seeks to improve quality of life for patients with advanced cancer.  

Anti-Cancer” author David Servan-Schreiber felt that healthy eating and stress reducing activities were the new lifestyle wave for fighting cancer. His ideas were groundbreaking and focused on alternative and adjunct cancer treatments. He proposed a science based anti-cancer diet as a supplement to standard treatment. He did not recommend food therapy as the only answer to fighting cancer, but proposed interesting ideas focused on healthy choices. Sugars and stress are fuel for cancer cells, according to his research. We were drawn to his out of the box thinking and proposal to blend traditional and alternative medicine. His methods couldn’t make a patient like our sister Colleen feel any worse or be detrimental.  Similar to David, Colleen was interested in holistic and wellness techniques, such as exercise, meditation, and nutrition, as ways to help her feel calm and well. Although David’s ideas were not “life saving” when fighting his own cancer, in that it did not prevent his ultimate death, he likely enjoyed the benefits of meditation, yoga, and eating foods that resulted in feeling well; these benefits are beyond worthwhile to a patient who no longer has traditional treatment options.

But for many cancer patients, food becomes a fight and the thing that turns them off the most. Colleen normally loved to eat and to cook, as we all did. We loved talking about food, sharing recipes, and sharing meals. The battle was about much more than food. Meals and cooking were things that we bonded over and brought us together, yet cancer changed this. When her increasing symptoms like dry mouth, differing tastes, and nausea took away her enjoyment of food, it was devastating for us to watch. We racked our brains trying to come up with ideas for food and drink. We became secretly obsessed about it, without letting her in on this because it was tiresome for her to talk incessantly about food and meal planning, which could make food even more unappetizing.

Unfortunately, we also faced a gap in care between active treatment and hospice enrollment when we had no one to ask for professional nutrition advice for her particular condition. We tried many different food options, privately researched nutrition, solicited advice from a nutritionist-friend, and studied food labels. We discovered that certain cereals are surprisingly high in protein; for example, Kashi Go Lean has 12 grams of protein per serving, and often cereal was palatable when other foods were not. 

When Colleen had advanced cancer, she stayed away from carbonated beverages, caffeine, smoothies, and milk products. She especially had an aversion to nutrition shakes like Ensure. We were limited in our options for easy vehicles of vitamins, protein, and hydration, but we were determined to figure out something for her to drink other than water. She was often thirsty but got sick of drinking just water all of the time. After some experimenting and a few flops, we created some of her favorite and easy drinks - caffeine-free teas and infused waters. We even found a juice that she enjoyed if it was watered down. Here are some of our drink concoctions:

  • Hot or iced herbal tea with lemon, real ginger and a bit of sugar

  • Caffeine-free green tea with lemon and honey

  • Infused waters - ideas include lemon/lime, lime/mint, cucumber/mint, strawberry/mint, strawberry/basil, and orange/ginger

  • Bolthouse Farms juices - including C-Boost, Amazing Mango, Mango Ginger+Carrot - mixed 1:1 with water

If we could provide a few moments of happiness through good food, we were determined to at least try. Whenever Colleen was craving a certain thing, we made sure to find it, cook it, do whatever it took to serve her something that she enjoyed. As Colleen’s tastes changed, so did our cooking skills. Eventually, few things appealed to Colleen anymore. Although we still wanted her to enjoy eating, we eventually realized that we should stop stressing about cooking for everyone. Sometimes no one felt like eating dinner, or everyone but Colleen would eat dinner, so we focused on meals that were easy or could be prepared ahead of time. Crock pot recipes that can be started early in the day and then forgotten about until someone gets hungry are the ideal. Click below for some of our favorite recipes.

It is hard to watch a loved one lose their appetite or become unable to eat. It is one of the many impossible things to accept, but you have to somehow come to terms with it. You can’t force them to eat, even though it would make you feel better to see them enjoy a meal and feel satisfied. Food is love and we love eating. But sometimes there are times in life and things like cancer that take over meal planning and family dinners together. We understand the desire to nurture your loved ones through food, and nutrition is important, but it can become a difficult area to navigate. Give yourself a break and don’t aim for gourmet meals. You can’t possibly be a super caregiver AND Martha Stewart at the same time.