Nutrition and chemotherapy

All methods of treating cancer, including chemotherapy, radiation therapy and biological therapy (immunotherapy) are powerful. Each person reacts differently to these treatments, but only about one third of patients suffer side effects which usually disappear after treatment. 

Chemotherapy, (the treatment of cancer by means of chemical agents), also called systemic therapy, reaches all areas in the body that contain cancerous cells. The drugs used in the treatment of cancer vary according to their side effects and chemical structure.

The side effects are not always predictable and some patients will not experience all of them. Keep in mind that any drug has potential side effects.

Therefore, there is no blanket approach or nutritional intervention that will apply to all patients who undergo chemotherapy. Certain chemotherapy agents may have nutrient-medication interactions.

Be sure to consult with your oncologist, pharmacist or dietician to find out whether you should avoid certain foods. 

Everything in moderation

Remember that moderation is the key. Don’t overdo anything, especially if you are considering diet supplementation in pill or portion form. Always contact your health care provider before embarking on a new course of treatment – even exercise.

Try to have at least three meals a day and aim to drink between six to eight glasses of fluid. Restrict your total fat intake, especially saturated and trans fatty acids such as animal fats, coconut, hard margarine, cake, pastries and coffee creamers. Include mono-unsaturated fats in restricted amounts in your diet for example: use canola / olive oil, or spread avocado or peanut butter on bread.

Eat fish three times a week and consume more chicken than red meat. Oily fish, including pilchards, salmon and sardines are high in omega 3 fatty acids. Limit your consumption of processed meats e.g. polonies, salami, ham, bacon, and sausage.

Increase your fibre intake by choosing wholewheat bread instead of white bread. Eat unrefined cereals, include a variety of fresh vegetables and fruit in your diet and experiment with pulses (peas, lentils, beans, soya, barley and crushed wheat).

Consume at least four to five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Choose fresh produce that is rich in vitamin C (e.g. tomato, the cabbage family, citrus fruit and guavas) as well as dark green or deep yellow vegetables. Keep it colourful. Anti-oxidants give fruit and vegetables their colour (e.g. lycopene in tomatoes). Buy dark beetroot, the reddest tomato you can find and eat lots of dark green leafy vegetables and pumpkin.

The use of special products is usually unnecessary if food is prepared in the correct way. The best cooking methods are steaming, boiling, braaing and baking. Limit the addition of fat (e.g. cream, mayonnaise, margarine, oil, salad dressing and cheese) to your meals.

Use salt sparingly while preparing food and don’t add extra salt at the table. Herbs and salt-free spices add more flavour to dishes.

Be sensible when choosing supplements for your diet – never substitute food with a tablet – supplements are only meant to enhance your diet and should not be used to replace food. Brands and individual needs vary, so consult with your doctor, dietician or pharmacist before taking them.

Should you experience side effects (nausea, gastro-intestinal disturbances etc.), please consult you dietician for a personalised approach to make the journey to recovery easier for you.

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Berna Harmse is a private practicing dietitian in Cape Town, she holds a MSc in Dietetics and has a special interest in oncology nutrition. She is also an external lecturer at Stellenbosch University Division of Human Nutrition.

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