Nutrition for those affected by cancer

Tags: cancer , nutrition

Lyndel Costain is a registered dietician working in the NHS, media and as an independent consultant. Her clinical specialties include weight management and eating disorders, and she has worked at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Australia – being from Australia originally.

The "Peter Mac" is based in Melbourne and is world renowned centre for cancer research, treatment and education. As a dietician Lyndel worked with people receiving treatment as outpatients or as inpatients and helped them with problems such as weight loss, poor appetite, bowel upsets and sore or dry mouth – and was happy to discuss all of these issues and more in our live chat.

Here she answers questions on nutrition for those with cancer:

A Twitter follower asked:How important is diet in the early stages of chemotherapy?

Lyndel Costain:Hello, and thanks for your question. As chemotherapy progresses the risk of developing side effects that may affect your appetite/interest in food increases, so it is wise to take advantage of eating well when you are feeling well. Enjoying a variety of different foods helps your body to stay as strong as it can, fight infection and heal and repair itself.

AXAPPPhealthcare asked:Thanks, one of our bloggers asked about a recent news article linking junk food to breast cancer. What are your thoughts?

Lyndel Costain:This is an interesting question. There are many different factors that influence the risk of different cancers. When it comes to diet and breast cancer risk, studies suggest that aiming to be a healthy weight, regular exercise, keeping a check on saturated fat and keeping to recommended alcohol limits are all important. So limiting junk food can help with some of those. A healthy balanced diet will be thrown out of kilter by a lot of junk food too.

Steve asked:My mum is going through radiotherapy at the moment for breast cancer. She seems generally OK, but I want to make sure that her energy levels are boosted - any types of food you can recommend? Many thanks

Lyndel Costain:Hi Steve, and sorry to hear about your Mum. Feeling tired is a very common side effect of treatments such as radiotherapy or chemotherapy. Eating well can help a bit but can't avoid it to some extent. One important way to help is to have regular meals - often 3 smaller meals plus 2-3 snacks suits people better. Keeping meals balanced ensures she will get vitamins, minerals, protein and energy giving healthy carbs. So aim to include each day some fruit and veg, meat/fish/chicken/eggs/pulses, wholegrain breads and cereals and dairy foods (low fat milk, yogurts, small cheese portion). Good snacks may be fruit, yogurt, handful of nuts and dried fruit, small bowl of cereal. Hope this helps.

Steve:Thanks Lyndel - yes that does help! Am I right in thinking that nuts and fruit are also good for the skin? There has been some soreness almost like bad sunburn from radiotherapy treatment, so can diet help with that too?

Lyndel Costain:Radiotherapy can affect healthy cells, such as skin cells, as well as the cells it is targeted to treat so soreness, inflammation and redness can be a side effect. There is no direct evidence that diet will help with this, but some foods can generally help dampen down inflammation in the body such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, oily fish (salmon, fresh tuna, sardines, pilchards) so enjoying these as part of a balanced diet can help health in many ways.

SarahJ asked:I keep reading about 'super foods' and vitamins that prevent cancers (or at least help!) e.g. tomatoes. Can these help and if so, which ones?

Lyndel Costain:Hi SarahJ - there's always a newspaper headline about the latest super food. It is a bit of a marketing term, but it does often highlight foods that have had some research done into their potential health benefits. However no single food can prevent cancer - our overall diet and lifestyle is important in helping to reduce our risk of cancers. Tomatoes often hit the headlines, as does watercress, soya, green tea, broccoli and so on. As these are healthy foods and drinks and fit into recommendations to eat more pulses, fruit and veg, fibre etc as part of health protecting diet then by all means enjoy them. Meanwhile we await more research into how different foods help and interact with each other to benefit our health overall.

Fionad asked:Hi there. I've read lots on diet drinks potentially causing cancer and it worries me as I drink them quite a lot. Do you know if this is the case?

Lyndel Costain:Hi there Fiona. This is good question as there has been a lot of controversy about diet drinks. The amount of sweeteners that can be used in products such as fizzy drinks, diet yogurts is carefully regulated to ensure that people don't consume too much (in animal studies some sweeteners have been linked to cancers when taken in extremely high amounts). If you are drinking a lot if diet drinks, it may be useful to cut back a bit for general health reasons, as they are often acidic so may increase the risk of tooth erosion and some people find they gas plays havoc with their digestive systems. Hope that helps.

Fionad:Yes that is helpful, will definitely be cutting back on the diet coke! But also interesting to know about diet yogurt as I eat about 1 a day for bone health and concerned that they too use such sweeteners.

Lyndel Costain:Hi Fiona - good old water is a great (and cheap!) drink. It's good to have a yogurt each day for calcium, so you could choose a diet one, or add fruit to natural yogurt or choose a standard low fat fruit yogurt (around 125g pot). Cheers.

Ianh asked:What food aides the quickest weight loss?

Lyndel Costain:Hi Ianh - if there was a food that successfully aided quick and effective weight loss we would know about it by now! As I am sure you are aware, losing weight happens when we consumer fewer calories from food and drink than we burn. If we cut right back on how much/the calories we eat, we may lose weight quickly but it is hard to sustain, and can be unhealthy. So the best approach is to make healthy changes to what we eat, portion size etc and how active we are. Keeping a food diary really helps us to stay aware of what we are eating and problem solve if the going gets tough. Hope that helps.

AXAPPPhealthcare:Thanks Lyndel. One of our followers on Twitter asked about the benefits of adding an antioxidant supplement to their diet. Do you have any advice?

Lyndel Costain:Hi there. If the question relates to helping reduce the risk of developing cancer, then at the moment, there isn't the evidence to say that antioxidant supplements will have any benefit. The potential benefit seems to come from synergy between nutrients and natural compounds in eating a variety of nutritious foods e.g. fruit, veg, wholegrain, nuts, seeds, fish, low fat dairy, pulses - so a healthy balanced diet is the way to go. If it relates to taking a supplement when having treatment then there is some concern that high intakes of antioxidants may affect treatments so it is important to check any supplements with your cancer doctor before taking them. Hope this helps.

Lyndel Costain:Would it be helpful if I posted some useful websites where people can get more information?

AXAPPPhealthcare:Hi Lyndel yes that would be useful

Lyndel Costain:Ok. - this has a wide range of information about different cancers and their treatment plus practical information about eating well and coping with common side effects of treatments such as poor appetite, weight loss, sore mouth, feeling tired

Here's some more:

If anyone has any questions or concerns about their diet, and coping with the effects of treatment it is important that they talk to their cancer doctors, or other specialist staff such as nursing staff, dieticians for individual and practical information. For example, Nick asked about skin redness and soreness from radiotherapy - and while diet can't directly help with this (but it is important for the body's overall ability to heal and repair itself), other things such as careful washing of the skin, avoiding any perfumed soaps etc are very helpful. Your local treatment centre will give more information.

AXAPPPhealthcare:Thanks Lyndel. One of our bloggers has asked if you could recommend any foods that help with nausea.

Lyndel Costain:Hi there, and really sorry about the nausea, it can be quite debilitating and can be a side effect of treatment or some medications. Your doctor may have prescribed medication to help with the nausea. In terms of food, people often find eating little and often and cold foods easier to tolerate as they don't give off strong smells - try tinned fruit, biscuits, dry toast, yoghurt, cereal, ice cream. Sucking sweets or mints may help, as can dry toast, ginger biscuits. Don't forget drinks - small sips may be better and ginger tea or ginger ale may help. Avoid greasy foods and eating in a stuffy room. Hope this helps. The websites mentioned above have more guidance and if really struggling then ask for advice from your doctor or dietician. All the best.

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