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Diet and nutrition for cancer patients

An appropriate diet and a healthy lifestyle are crucial for people who are receiving cancer treatment; eating the right food helps the patient endure the symptoms of the disease and the side effects of therapy.

Francesco Anichini Dr. Francesco Anichini, dietician at the Medical Oncology and Immunotherapy Unit of the University Hospital of Siena, describes the key principles for correct nutrition in cancer patients.

Piatto Sano“I would like to introduce the topic of correct nutrition in people treated for cancer by saying something which may sound trivial but is not.
The most effective action people can take when affected by a chronic condition, such as cancer, is to be resolved to take care of themselves, accepting the disease and putting themselves at the center of their choices and their treatment pathway.

When I give some dietary advice to my patients, I never speak of calories, difficult calculations, miracle foods or elixirs of life.
My purpose is to make them understand that if they want to take care of their eating habits, they must believe that optimizing their lifestyle can support their drug therapy by fighting disease progression and improving their quality of life.

MeditazioneI ask my patients to organize their meals and daily tasks carefully, and to plan their weekly activities and physical exercise with great accuracy, because first of all they must change their wrong habits and replace them with actions that can provide positive energy to their body as well as to their mind.

The word “diet” comes from the Greek word “dìaita” that means “way of life”. It is a concept that has much deeper roots than a mere calculation of calories. Our diet reflects our ability to socialize, and is strictly connected with our emotional sphere and our mood; as such, it really represents a way of life. Therefore, if we give diet the meaning of a healthy, balanced and appropriate lifestyle, there can be no room for extremism or do-it-yourself eating plans.

Pranzo in famigliaMany patients come to my practice with long lists of supplements, questionable beliefs or diet plans almost exclusively based on drink or meal substitutes suggested by friends, false doctors or popular magazines and social networks. The media often contributes to give people too much information, which in many cases is deceivable or not verified by reliable sources, thus creating confusion and uncertainty among patients.

A key concept that should be firmly established is that to date, no scientifically validated diet alone can cure the disease. Therefore, I warn all readers to beware of fake news that is spread on the internet and social media, and to request the help of qualified health and scientific professionals.

Nutrition is a serious matter: it can help prevent the development of malignancies and metabolic diseases that have had a huge impact on our history during the last 200 years; however, a diet alone cannot make miracles.
Moreover, a rudimentary and unbalanced diet can cause serious damage, such as excess loss of body weight and muscle mass, or severe intoxications.

On the other hand, when a diet is used in combination with recognized drug treatments, it can enhance the efficacy of cancer therapies and work synergistically to improve prognosis and patients’ quality of life by reducing toxicities and preparing the body to support the planned treatment pathway.

When speaking of “effective” diet regimens, there is a great confusion among patients and in the public opinion. For example, it is often claimed that vegan diet is a cure-all, or that vegetarian diet is to be preferred because it is more balanced, or that ketogenic diet (an extremely low-carbohydrate diet) can also be useful “to starve cancer cells”. Some regimens also include periods of fasting or semi-fasting into the eating schedule; I could go on and on with other examples.

What is certain is that there is no one universal diet that can be used by all; a diet regimen should be based on the subject’s requirements and physical/mental conditions and take into account the prescribed therapy. Another firmly established point to be kept in mind is that no food is toxic in itself, when it is of good quality and is eaten with the appropriate frequency, and that any valid dietary approach should take into account the subject’s individual characteristics and ensure a certain flexibility in order to find a balance that is sustainable over time and can be adjusted to the changing situations of everyday life.

Finally, I would like to make one last point: when treating cancer patients in the hospital setting, nutrition aspects are not always appropriately considered, but fortunately there are exceptions. One example is the Cancer Immunotherapy Center of the Siena Hospital, where great attention is paid to patients’ nutrition and a nutrition support service is provided to optimize the therapeutic pathway.

For practical guidance on how to eat better during cancer therapy, please read my next article (to be published soon) where I will answer to patient frequently asked questions and provide easy-to-follow advice individualized for their specific therapy.

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