Healthy Diet – Key for Cancer Survivors

Last week at the Late Effects of Cancer Treatment Conference’ in Sheffield some of the discussion was around the importance of diet for cancer survivors. 

Dan Porter, a cancer survivor who spoke on the last day, said that the first thing he did after his cancer diagnosis was to find out how he could improve his diet. He said how difficult/impossible it was to find information through mainstream and how much research he had to do on his own to discover what foods and dietary changes would help him. He also commented that “scientists can become cynical and dismiss things that can be helpful to patients”.

 This is a common theme amongst people who are diagnosed with cancer and their carers. If we ask patients or read their cancer online blogs they say how they have no access to decent information about nutrition, diet and exercise. This is one of them:

And yet, recent findings confirm that specialised aspects of nutrition play a major and hitherto unsuspected role in both the causation of disease and the regeneration on a cellular level, which of course is absolutely fundamental in dealing with cancer.

The relevance of nutrition to cancer survivors is very considerable because of its tangible influence on the lengthening of life and improvement in quality of life, even in terminally ill patients. The emerging significance of nutrition means that even undergraduate students need to be made aware of these important developments in the treatment of cancer, which must not be neglected in shaping the treatment of cancer survivors.

Through my work as doctor at the Penny Brohn Cancer Care (PBCC) charity in Bristol and as a palliative care doctor in a hospice and the community, I have witnessed the importance of nutrition throughout the cancer patient’s journey. 

PBCC have produced evidence-based Healthy Eating Guidelines and have been offering nutritional advice for many years to hundreds of patients who come to benefit from their experience.

In my role as Chair of the Food and Nutrition Group at ‘Help the Hospices’, we have produced a Consensus Statement on Nutritional Care of Palliative Care Patients which has been widely endorsed by several organisations, including the Royal College of Physicians, The Royal College of Nursing, the British Dietetic Association, the National Council for Palliative Care and others. This shows the realisation by healthcare professionals of the importance of good nutritional care for people with palliative care needs. This importance can be easily translated and indeed extended to initiatives for cancer survivors who have a great opportunity to benefit from a good diet.

Patients, survivors and users ask first and foremost this question: ‘what should I eat’.

They want to help themselves.

They want information and support to understand how they can improve their diet and lifestyle in general.

Learning what foods are going to help them live better and longer, what foods will support their immune system and give them pleasure, could transform their experience and make their cancer journey less difficult.

During their treatment, they may experience a plethora of problems (nausea, vomiting, constipation, diarrhoea, loss of appetite, dry mouth, mucositis, pain, shortness of breath, reduced saliva, unexplained weight loss) that can be helped by good nutritional advice.

These can be dealt with an individualised plan, as no one person is the same and everyone’s needs are different.

When they finish their treatment they may continue with a healthy diet for secondary cancer prevention.

An effort to highlight the importance of a good diet and offer cancer survivors support and advice would benefit both those that need it and those who care for them. 

The author is making a plea for the recognition that research and evidence on the relevance of diet on cancer prevention and treatment has evolved quite fundamentally and needs to be included in the future agenda for cancer survivorship.