What You Need to Know About Nutrition During Cancer Rehabilitation

In the past you may have gone on a diet to lose weight, build muscle, or achieve certain health benefits. You may have used common sense to build your diet, followed a diet book, used an app, or even consulted with a nutritionist. If you have recently been diagnosed with cancer, though, or are currently undergoing cancer treatments, there is more about managing nutrition before and during cancer rehabilitation that you should know.

Cancer treatments pose an array of problems for your body that can lead to malnourishment, including loss of appetite, smell, and taste, the ability to swallow, and the ability to absorb nutrients. If you have coexisting conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, or obesity, managing your diet will gain an extra level of complexity. And if you need nutritional support, such as food intake through a feeding tube, getting the right nutrition will likely be a new and trying experience.

All of these things are something that a cancer dietitian can help with, and you should expect oncology dietitians to be an important part of your cancer rehab plan.

First of all, to clear up a common misconception, there are few studies that show strong connections between eating certain foods and eliminating cancer. Some foods can reduce your risk of getting cancer, but if you have already been diagnosed, food will help you mainly by giving you energy for your treatments and rehab program, and reducing other factors correlated with a higher risk of cancer coming back. 

Good nutrition is also strongly linked to better heart health and higher energy for exercise, both of which are linked with better outcomes after cancer treatment. Many people ask which foods and supplements to eat. It is more important to understand how your overall diet, including when and how much you eat, contributes to your health.

When should I see a nutritionist or dietitian during cancer rehab?

I strongly recommend talking to a nutritionist at the beginning of your cancer treatments, even before they begin, if possible. Studies show that people who are healthier and more physically fit before chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery recover more quickly than those who are not. Beginning a healthy diet (and giving your body time to get used to the changes) is something you should start right away. 

If you are not used to shopping for or preparing the food your dietitian recommends, it’s best to give yourself some time to learn new routines or buy ingredients in bulk. Alternatively, you can give yourself time to find a food-delivery service that can deliver prepared meals to fit your tastes and schedule.

Other factors besides overall health and convenience make consulting with a dietitian more important:

  • The cancer affects an area that directly affects your digestion
  • You have heart disease or diabetes
  • You are classified as obese or underweight
  • You have a previous history of eating disorders
  • You are an alcoholic or have a history of alcoholism

When you are looking for dietitians, check whether they call themselves a nutritionist or dietitian, and look at their credentials and experience. Although the “nutritionist” and “dietitian” are sometimes used interchangeably, they refer to two different positions with different legal and educational qualifications. 

Anyone with a college degree in nutrition can refer to themselves as a “nutritionist”.  Granted, a nutritionist can go on to earn a graduate degree in nutrition, become a certified nutrition specialist (CNS), or become a certified/clinical nutritionist (CN).

Dietitians, on the other hand, must complete more extensive training.  First, one must earn a bachelor’s degree that is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND).  Students must also earn a verification statement from a Didactic Program in Dietetics (DPD).

In addition to completing an undergraduate or graduate degree, a prospective dietitian must complete at least 1,200 hours in an internship under the supervision of a licensed professional. Once these requirements are met, individuals need to pass the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) exam. 

At Oncology Rehab and Wellness, our in-clinic dietitian is a registered dietitian and has extensive experience assisting oncology patients and cancer survivors.

What exactly will a dietitian do?

A dietitian who is experienced in utilizing nutrition in conjunction with a cancer rehab program will help you with several things, such as:

  • Understand proper nutrition for healthy living
  • Help with menu planning and recipes to make food prep easier
  • Modify your diet to accommodate other dietary requirements for heart disease and diabetes
  • Help you lose weight healthily if you are obese
  • Help you maintain weight if you lose the desire or ability to eat normally
  • Modify your diet to manage treatment side effects
  • Modify your diet based on what kind of cancer you have, if a tumor or surgery affects your food intake and digestion
  • Assist with nutrition support if you need a feeding tube or supplementation regime

At our clinic, our dietitian can help with all of these things. If you are starting from scratch with nutrition and dieting, they can help you start with basics, including the logistics of meal planning and prep. If you already have experience following a diet, they can help you with issues that may be unfamiliar to you, such as how to continue eating if you have lost your sense of taste.

When you begin your consultation, they will ask you about your diagnosis, current or planned treatment, symptoms and side effects, and overall well being. They will ask about your previous eating habits and diet, and how easily you can obtain and prepare your own food. Next, they will help you come up with a meal plan that spans several weeks. They will then recommend changes that may be in the type and amount of food you eat, how often you eat, and how food is eaten (for example, at a certain temperature or taken with a straw).

During your treatment, they will work with other members of your treatment team to make sure you are adhering to your diet plan and that it is working as intended.They may liaise with your oncologist, psychologist, nurse, physical therapist, and others. When your diet plan ends, they will give you follow-up advice on how to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

How do I start working with an oncology dietitian?

Here at Oncology Rehab and Wellness, you do not need a referral from your physician to begin working with our dietitian. You are welcome to self-refer and call us for a consultation. We can help you with the insurance claim process.

Good nutrition is relevant and important to cancer recovery at all stages. Good nutrition is also very important to ensure your success and progress with your cancer rehab program.  Wherever you are in the process, we can help you eat better so you can recover faster. 

Our clinic phone is (703) 789-0367 – call us today if you have any questions or if you would like to schedule an appointment.