Dr. Esther Sathiaraj, Head – Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics, HCG Cancer Hospital Bengaluru
Lung cancer is the most common cancer worldwide involving genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors. The treatment can cause a burden of healing that can overwhelm even a healthy patient’s nutritional reserve. Amongst all, nutritional factors are of utmost importance including diet, alcohol intake, body weight and physical activity.
Fatigue (tiredness), pain, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting and dysphagia (swallowing difficulties) are some of the common symptom’s patients can experience during treatment, which can impact nutritional intake. When food intake is not adequate, there is an increased risk in developing malnutrition. Many patients with lung cancer lose weight during treatment, sometimes more than 10% of usual body weight that is often associated with loss of muscle mass.
Each time a patient undergoes cancer treatment that is surgery, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy, or radiation therapy – the body responds to the treatment with healing. The healing course needs specific nutrients, extra calories, and additional protein.
Since malnutrition and loss of weight is very common among lung cancer patients, it becomes imperative to provide good nutrition. Though there is no special diet or supplement that can cure or treat lung cancer, good nutrition can support your body during treatment. Given below are few tips that can help you during lung cancer treatment.
- Maintaining a healthy weight / Minimizing weight loss: Taking sufficient calories to meet the increased requirements would help in maintaining your healthy body weight. Make your meals calorie-dense by adding milk or cream or coconut milk to gravies, snack on nuts and dried fruits, eat larger meals when your appetite is good and eat small meals and snacks through the day. A frequent meal pattern with thick soups, fruit juices, fruit milkshakes, smoothies and yoghurts taken in-between the major meals is recommended. Speak to your nutritionist to understand the different calorie-rich foods and incorporate them in your diet.
- High Protein Diet: A high protein diet will help in maintaining the lean body mass, wound healing and building immunity. Proteins are the building blocks for your muscles and immunity. Protein rich foods include lean meat, eggs, milk, curds, yogurt, nuts, beans, peas, lentils and dals. It is recommended to incorporate proteins in every meal and not just one meal, eg. have a scrambled or boiled egg everyday with breakfast, dal and curd for lunch, chicken stew or soup with dinner, handful of nuts as evening snack.
- Managing loss of appetite and fatigue: Eat small portions of your favorite foods every 4 hours to meet the nutritional goals. Food preferences can change because of the treatment, so include a variety of foods that you are tolerating. When appetite is very poor, oral nutritional supplements might be advised. Keep nutritious snacks such as roasted nuts, dried fruits, roasted lentils, cheese cubes handy especially on days when appetite is very low. Be active and regularly exercise as recommended by your doctor. This has shown to boost your metabolism and manage fatigue.
- Balanced Diet: Eating healthy food containing various nutrients is helpful in preventing the human body from diseases. Including fresh fruits and green leafy vegetables in the daily food routine builds a strong immune system. Fill half your plate with plant-based foods, fruits and vegetables. These are high on fiber, anti-oxidants, phytonutrients and certain micronutrients that will help your body to cope with the treatment.
- Grains and Healthy Fats: Whole grains and millets are recommended over simple sugars and refined foods. Locally available millets like foxtail millets, barnyard millets, finger millets are rich in nutrients and fiber. Healthy fats like omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial during cancer treatment because of their anti-inflammatory properties. Olive and canola oils, fortified vegetable oils, seeds, nuts and avocados contain healthy fats that can be taken in the diet.
Coping with lung cancer
Patients sometimes feel immune-compromised, depending on the type of treatment. At times the white blood cell counts are affected causing high risk for foodborne illness. Treatment side-effects are based on the individual and therefore you don’t need to entirely modify your diet if you don’t experience side-effects of poor appetite, fatigue, and nausea. Focus on eating a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of proteins, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Many patients are often stressed and depressed while undergoing cancer treatment. It is highly advisable to constantly update the doctor about the health conditions and keep in touch with the team to make the journey easier.