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You, your cancer and the food you eat – the role of diet in cancer treatment and recovery

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” Hippocrates

If you’re being treated for cancer, you’ll know better than Hippocrates that food is not the medicine that’s going to cure you. But following a healthy diet can help with your treatment and recovery.

This article offers some tips on how you can follow a healthy diet, but it’s not intended as a substitute for the advice from your own healthcare or treatment team. The team at the Rutherford includes expert nutritionists/dieticians ready to give you the help and support you need.

So, what does ‘good nutrition’ look like on the plate?

First of all, you don’t need to follow one type of diet. It doesn’t have to be the ‘same old same old’ - and what works for one person may not be right for another. That’s why everyone being treated for cancer at the Rutherford has access to individualised dietary advice.

Having a balanced diet can help you stay as fit as possible and allow you to achieve, or retain, a healthy weight. That means eating plenty of fruit and vegetables (ideally five portions a day) and starchy foods, with a smaller proportion of protein. The percentage of dairy products, oils and spreads should be lower still. You might find it useful to have a look at the Food Pyramid, which illustrates what a healthy diet looks like.

Why is good nutrition important?

As well as helping you to feel better, a healthy diet can mean you maintain a healthy weight, as well as your strength and muscle mass. You won’t be lacking any of the nutrients you need, and you’ll be better prepared to tolerate any side-effects of your treatment or the cancer itself. Proper nutrition can also reduce the risk of infection.

Some people find that it gets harder to tolerate certain foods, they lose their appetite, or their diet must change because of the effects of cancer or their treatment. You may also need to include more high-fat foods if you’re having problems keeping weight on.

Apart from healthy eating, what else do I need to know?

Before, during, and for some time after radiotherapy, you may need to eat little and often, sticking to your usual diet if you can. Make sure you drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration – aim for two litres a day.

If you’re having radiotherapy to your lung, chest, or oesophagus, you may experience some swallowing difficulties and a sore mouth and throat. In this case, cooler foods and foods that are smoother/less crunchy will help, especially if your throat becomes more painful as treatment progresses. Some people don’t feel like eating and may start to lose weight. If this happens, your healthcare or treatment team will be able to suggest a personalised nutrition plan for you.

If you’re having radiotherapy or proton beam therapy for pelvic or prostate cancer, your bowel movements may become looser. You may have diarrhoea and excess wind, which can cause problems with the imaging required to target your tumour. In this case, you may be advised to follow a low-fibre (but not no-fibre), low-irritant diet for a while and drink plenty of fluids. The list of food and drink to avoid includes fizzy drinks, porridge, muesli and bran flakes, wholemeal and granary bread, anything containing nuts and dried fruit, and any fruit with skins, seeds, or pips. But for more information, just talk to your healthcare or treatment team.

What about chemotherapy and diet?

In most cases, you won’t need to follow a special diet while you have chemotherapy. The general advice is to have a nutritious and well-balanced diet and keep up your intake of fluids. Some people lose (or in a few cases gain) weight. If you start to lose a lot of weight, it could interrupt your chemotherapy. Try eating little and often, including foods such as cheese, butter, cakes, milkshakes and honey to regain the weight. Again, your healthcare or treatment team will be able to offer more specific help and advice.

A final word about infection

Cancer itself can reduce the ability of your immune system to fight infection. Your chemotherapy treatment can have the same effect, as it reduces your white blood cell count. You’re most at risk 7-14 days after your chemotherapy when your white blood cell count is lowest, but you’ll be given regular blood tests to check everything is OK.

Follow the current COVID-19 advice about thorough handwashing and social distancing as these measures will help you stay infection-free. You also need to be particularly careful about food hygiene around the kitchen.

You can find more information from Macmillan Cancer Support and your local team at the Rutherford Cancer Centres.

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