In general, our nutritional status says a lot about our health. Specifically, for patients undergoing cancer treatment, nutrition is particularly important to their health and successful recovery from treatment – and often is overlooked.
“Standard cancer therapies tend to be episodic and are completed within a certain time frame,” said Louis Potters, MD, chair of radiation medicine for the North Shore-LIJ Health System. “On the other hand, good nutritional behaviors are a complement to standard therapies and have lifelong impacts, well beyond cancer care for improved overall lifestyle improvements.”
At the North Shore-LIJ Cancer Institute, access to registered dieticians (RDs) who can nutritionally assess patients, provide personalized nutrition plans, offer guidance and help patients participate in nutrition trials is a vital component to overall cancer care.
A lot of RDs’ work is motivational and even inspirational. In addition to creating a completely individualized patient nutrition plan, along with tips, a North Shore-LIJ RD often tries to motivate them through empathy and encouragement. While a patient can’t control what’s going to happen tomorrow or in three weeks, what they can control is their nutrition. That’s something they can do for themselves every day to make them feel better.
Dr. Potters adds: “All the data support that cancer patients with good nutrition regimes tolerate either surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy better. So while physicians and health care professionals manage their clinical treatments, many patients courageously react to their diagnosis by looking for ways to empower and improve in managing themselves. Our nutritional trials can be a powerful motivator to help these patient outcomes.”
Besides individual patient nutrition therapy, patient participation in nutrition clinical trials helps identify, refine and codify ever better standards of patient care – and inform the medical field for North Shore-LIJ Cancer Institute patients and cancer clinicians. For example, one nutrition collaborative clinical trial the Cancer Institute is conducting is called the Men’s Eating and Living Study (MEAL). It’s for prostate cancer patients to help understand how diet might affect prostate cancer outcome. Another trial focuses on methodology – whether active coaching or written material or a combination of these and other methods are most effective.
Integral to the Cancer Institute’s multidisciplinary approach to care, RDs communicate about each patient’s medical status with the interdisciplinary medical team. When a doctor assessing a patient discovers any treatment side effects, an RD is called in if it’s nutrition related. And often an RD is in the room with the doctor and patient to discuss medical and nutrition tips and any attendant side effects.
Registered dieticians see patients throughout the stages of treatment to ensure that they maintain as good health as possible. If they’re losing weight, an RD works with them to try to maintain their weight. If they’re having side effects like taste changes or decreased appetite or any gastrointestinal upset, the RD provides guidance on how to manage them. While there is a whole host of medications that help manage these side effects, patients have diet and nutrition options that can help as well.
Recommending vitamins and other nutritional supplements is another large part of what RDs do, such as high-calorie, high-protein creamy drinks that people can add into their diet to make sure they’re getting enough calories.
People like and tolerate foods differently, so North Shore-LIJ Cancer Institute RDs have resources and hand-outs that can address individual circumstances. Are there foods that they love or hate? Do they have food allergies? They can also prepare very light meals or small refreshments that aren’t fatty, greasy, spicy or strong smelling to snack on throughout the day if nausea is an issue. If they have taste changes, patients can try adding different flavors to food to enhance the taste. If they want something sweet, drizzle honey on it. Or when eating something savory, add herbs and spices.
While nutritional treatment ultimately depends on what the patient is looking for, RDs recommend that patients come in for appointments before, during and after treatment. Connecting with RDs help patients stay on track with their positive health journey.
Support on the Journey
The Cancer Institute organizes and hosts support groups across the network, including for patients who have already completed active treatment.
Survivorship programs are tailored to patients who have completed active treatment and are seeking information and support to help them on their new journey. RDs frequently conduct a nutrition presentation at the meetings, often with interactive food prep and cooking demonstrations.
The Cancer Institute network also hosts support groups for patients in current treatment. Find complete listings at bit.ly/MySupport1.