Nutrition in Cancer Rehabilitation: Bringing True Recovery

If you have cancer, you will notice changes in your digestion. A cancer specifically located in the digestive system, such as colorectal or pancreatic cancer, will have an obvious effect. Non-gastrointestinal cancers, such as breast cancer or brain cancer, will also affect the digestive system, because radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery are hard on the body. This is why nutrition is so important for cancer rehabilitation and recovery and why working with an oncology dietitian is something you should start sooner rather than later.

How Different Cancers Affect The Digestive System

All cancers – including non-gastrointestinal ones – tend to result in nausea, loss of appetite, inability to eat or drink easily, and loss of smell and taste, simply because cancer treatments are rough on the body. They also commonly cause constipation and diarrhea

Gastrointestinal cancers will have more specific and damaging effects, although the effects tend to show up later when the tumor is more advanced. Esophageal cancer may make swallowing difficult. Stomach cancers will cause ulcer-like feelings, causing indigestion, appetite loss (clinical anorexia), bloating, and pain. Patients with liver and pancreatic cancer may also feel abdominal pain. Colorectal cancer most commonly causes constipation, diarrhea, or bleeding.

Part Of Cancer Rehabilitation Is Changing Your Diet

“Cancer rehabilitation” generally includes physical therapy (and at times speech therapy or occupational therapy), but it should also include nutrition and diet. In my previous post, I talked about how a dietitian can help cancer patients generally and how nutrition in general is important for making optimal progress in cancer rehab. This post has more specifics about the interactions between your diet and cancer.

An oncology dietitian can help determine the best diet for you based on your personal preferences, genetic sensitivities, and cancer type, but here are some high-level recommendations that tend to hold true for most cancer patients.

Cancer rehabilitation for constipation

Constipation can be caused by the tumor, certain medications, or changes to your lifestyle. Laxatives can relieve it, but it’s better to change your diet for a more natural and healthier way to manage constipation.

Diet changes:

  • Avoid foods with lactose such as milk and cheese. These will bind up your system.
  • Eat foods that are higher in fiber, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
  • Stay hydrated. Water, juice, tea, and coffee will all help. Alcohol will not, since it is actually dehydrating.

Lifestyle changes:

Cancer rehabilitation for diarrhea

Diarrhea can result from cancer treatments or secondary infections that arise while your immune system is weakened. The main danger from diarrhea is dehydration because your body is losing a lot of fluid.

Diet changes:

  • Avoid foods with lactose such as milk and cheese. These will bind up your system.
  • Eat foods that are higher in fiber, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
  • Stay hydrated. Water, juice, tea, and coffee will all help. Alcohol will not, since it is actually dehydrating.
  • Drink more liquids than you normally would. Sports drinks or new enhanced waters that contain electrolytes are particularly helpful because you are also losing vitamins and minerals as well as fluids. Clear broths and herbal teas are also good.
  • Eat foods that are high in potassium, such as bananas. If you experience muscle cramps, you are low in potassium.
  • High-fiber foods can actually make diarrhea worse. Avoid whole grains and raw fruits and vegetables. It may seem unintuitive from a nutrition standpoint, but you can start eating these again once the diarrhea resolves.
  • Eat soft, easy-to-digest foods like applesauce, rice, yogurt, bananas, and other “squishy” things.

Lifestyle changes:

  • Rapid walking or exercise with a lot of movement can trigger your bowels. When you exercise, opt for things that keep you relatively in one place, such as stretching, yoga, and upper body exercises.

Cancer rehabilitation for losing your appetite

It is often likely that you may lose your appetite while undergoing cancer treatment. This is normal. It is also something that you can actively manage as part of cancer rehabilitation. A majority of cancer patients in treatment do not put on weight during treatments (however some cancer treatments, such as for breast cancer – do cause weight gain), they tend to have a harder time keeping it on, so you most likely will need to encourage yourself to eat. For best results, ask a friend or partner to help you with meal prep and stocking up appropriate foods.

Here are some changes you can make while dealing with low or no appetite:

  • Eat whenever you feel hungry or inclined to snack. Don’t keep yourself to set meal times if it isn’t necessary. Eating smallerl amounts during the day will also be easier on your digestion.
  • When you are most hungry, eat your favorite foods. Enjoy eating. Lifting your mood can be just as useful to your health as the food itself.
  • If your sense of smell or taste has changed and foods become unpleasant, try foods with drier textures. Something that is crunchy is sometimes more palatable than something soft. (Although if you are suffering from bowel issues, adjust as appropriate.)
  • Don’t always feel obligated to restrict yourself to “the healthiest foods.” Sometimes, eating something is more important than eating nothing (even if it isn’t optimally “healthy”). If you are craving a certain food go ahead and do it.  Your body needs calories to function and heal -regardless.  If you do not get enough in terms of calories, your body will begin burning other sources for fuel such as muscle – and this leads to a host of additional problems.

Working With An Oncology Dietitian

Much of this is general cancer rehabilitation advice that is readily available to cancer patients from many cancer support centers. An oncology dietitian is so useful because he or she will be able to help you with your specific nutritional profile. Factors that will change your recommended diet include your nutritional needs, food sensitivities, symptoms, and specific kind of cancer. There is much that food can do to help you overcome symptoms in a natural and healthy way, if you only have the right foods.

Working with an oncology dietitian is not just about making sure you get the right nutrition. It is just as much about your quality of life before, during, and after cancer treatments. Bouts of nausea, diarrhea, and other digestive upsets may be things you can cope with, but they do not just need to be borne. They are probably the most easily treated side effect of your cancer journey. A good diet that helps you feel better during the day will have compound effects on your recovery by improving your mood, energy, and overall wellbeing. 

At Oncology Rehab and Wellness we have a registered dietitian on staff who has extensive experience working with cancer patients. To learn more about exactly how a dietitian can help you (and how they differ from an average nutritionist), see my previous blog

If you would like to work with us (and we would be glad to have you!), our cancer rehab clinic phone is (703) 789-0367. Call us if you have questions or want to schedule an appointment.