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Healthy lifestyle: Nutrition & cancer

Published:Saturday | April 24, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Heather Little-White, Contributor

The 'BIG C' is a disease that is feared because of its ravaging effect on the body. Cancer does not discriminate, and data showing that cancer will affect one in every three persons alive today are not encouraging.

Cancer can strike the old and young, active and inactive, slim and overweight. Cancer is debilitating and makes a great demand on the body. As such, cancer patients should maintain a healthy diet.A person living with cancer should strive to maintain a healthy weight and to eat food that supplies the body with fuel and nutrients for repair and healing.

Cancers take root in body cells, the body's basic unit of life. Cancer develops when the genetic material (DNA) of a cell is damaged, producing mutations that affect normal cell growth and division. When this happens, cells do not die when they should. New out-of-control cells form when the body does not need them. As a result, the extra cells may form a mass of tissue called a tumour.


When cancer sets in, a person's eating habits and behaviour change. The way the body uses nutrients changes as well. There is often a radical shift in the types and amounts of food eaten before cancer is diagnosed.The cancer patient may have to cope with the side effects of therapy. Given the nature of a particular cancer, some foods may taste less appealing to you now compared to the period before diagnosis and treatment.

It is natural to react to foods as they are prepared. Coping with changes in your eating habits may seem overwhelming, but once you understand what foods are helpful, it should make mealtime more pleasant. You may feel anxious about eating enough of certain foods.


Usage may change the way the cancer patient's body uses nutrients. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, these changes may be caused by the way the body responds to the tumour, the side effects of treatment, certain medication or some combinations of these reasons.


Nausea and vomiting are common in cancer patients and may result in loss of appetite.Subsequently, the body wastes away when all the energy reserves are used up. It is generally recommended that cancer patients eat a wide variety of foods to support the immune system, but some cancer patients may have difficulty consuming enough of a wide variety of foods to satisfy their nutritional needs.


Minerals, vitamins and phytochemicals in plant foods boost the immune system. In addition, vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans are low in calorie density and protect against weight gain. Excess body fat is implicated in the development of cancer. Eating a predominantly plant-based diet can help prevent weight gain and protect against those cancers whose risk is convincingly increased by higher body melfat (cancers of the colo-rectum, oesophagus, endometrium, pancreas, kidney and breast in post-menopausal women).

At least two-thirds of your plate should be filled with vegetables, fruit, whole grains and beans known to protect against cancers. Foods recommended by the American Institute of Cancer Research include beans, berries, cruciferous vegetables, dark green leafy vegetables, flaxseed, garlic, grapes and grape juice, green tea, soy, tomatoes.

Vitamin and mineral deficiencies

There may be frequent deficiencies of vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, zinc, copper, magnesium and iron.

When these deficiencies exist, patients may benefit from a multi-vitamin/mineral supplement to meet the recommended daily intake (RDI) of important nutrients. However, excess supplements above the RDI should not be taken, as this practice could interfere with the beneficial effects of certain cancer chemotherapies and/or radiation therapy.It is advisable to check with your doctor before embarking on supplementation or herbal preparations.

Heather Little-White, PhD, is a nutrition and lifestyle consultant in Kingston. Send comments to or fax 922-6223.


Cancer cells can spread to other parts of the body through the blood and lymph systems. There are more than 100 types of cancer. Most cancers are named after the organ or type of cell in which they start: for example, cancer that begins in the colon is called colon cancer; cancer that begins in basal cells of the skin is called basal cell carcinoma.

Cancer types can be grouped into categories:

Carcinoma - Cancer that begins in the skin or in tissues that line or cover internal organs.

Sarcoma - Cancer that begins in bone, cartilage, fat, muscle, blood vessels, or other connective or supportive tissue.

Leukaemia - Cancer that starts in blood-forming tissue such as the bone marrow and causes large numbers of abnormal blood cells to be produced and enter the blood.TREATMENT EFFECTS

There are several different methods of treating cancer. Each may affect your nutritional needs and your eating habits.


Surgery can cause temporary or permanent nutritional challenges. After surgery, it may be necessary to increase calories to aid with healing. You may be advised to eat slightly more calories and proteins.Long-term nutritional problems may result when parts of the digestive system or gastrointestinal (GI) tract are removed or altered through surgery. It may be difficult to chew and swallow, resulting in poor absorption of nutrients in the intestine.


Radiation therapy uses high-energy waves to damage cancer cells, preventing them from multiplying. It may be either used alone or in combination with surgery or chemotherapy. Radiation may be used before surgery to shrink a tumour or after surgery to destroy any cancer cells that may remain in the area.

Radiation therapy may lead to nutritional problems similar to surgery. These usually occur when the GI tract is in the treatment and last only a short time. Conditions include irritation of the mouth, tongue and throat, milk intolerance, nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea. Long-term effects include dry mouth, narrowing of the oesophagus and malabsorption of nutrients.


Chemotherapy uses drugs to destroy cancer cells by disrupting their ability to grow and multiply. Chemotherapy may be used alone or along with radiation and/or surgery. Unlike surgery or radiation, chemotherapy can affect the entire body rather than just parts of it. The drugs used in chemotherapy interfere with cells as they divide and reproduce. Cancer cells are affected most because they divide and reproduce more often than normal cells. Normal cells can also be affected. When this happens, side effects may occur.

The most common side effects of chemotherapy are nausea, vomiting, hair loss, fatigue, infection, bleeding and anaemia. Some persons may suffer from constipation or diarrhoea; experience a strange taste in the mouth, making eating unpleasant. Some drugs may cause water retention, bloating, weight loss, weight gain or other nutritional problems.


Protein aids with recovery, helps maintain muscle mass, boosts blood count and the immune system. Smoothies are tasty, easy to prepare and make suitable meal replacement.

Tropical fruit smoothie

The mix of fruits works well to provide a load of nutrients and phytochemicals. For increased flavour, coconut cream may be added.

1 cup pineapple, chopped

1 cup of papaya, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped

1 mango, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped

1 ripe banana, peeled and broken into chunks

2-3 tbsps coconut cream (not milk)

2-3 tbsps honey

1 tsp vanilla extract

1-1 1/2 cup plain yoghurt

1-1 1/2 cup crushed ice

Place all ingredients, except ice, in blender. First set at medium and then at high. When smooth, continue blending while pouring in crushed ice.

Serves 4-6.

Granola Smoothie

A great smoothie idea for breakfast, especially when you are on the run.

1 cup low-fat or soy milk

1 banana

2 tbsps honey

3/4 cup granola

1/2 cup ice

Place ingredients in blender and blend at high speed.

Source: SmoothieWeb


Eat small, frequent mealsrather than large meals - every two hours.

Drink lots of water and fresh vegetable juices to rehydrate and flush the body - at least 18-24 ounces per day. Juice can be used as filler for snack.

Drink most of your fluids between meals to prevent being too full at mealtime.

Make freeze pops with weak fruit juice and water and suck on them when the mouth is dry.

Eat more watery fresh fruits, e.g., watermelon.

Use ginger as a tea or in juice. Ginger is nature's remedy for nausea and vomiting.

Make lavish use of seasonings, spices, flavourings to improve taste, but be careful in the use of sweet or very bitter flavourings.

Eat soft, moist foods such as porridges, soups, stews, smoothies. Bananas, crushed yams or potatoes, rice. Pain may make it difficult to chew or swallow.

Avoid dry, hard foods such as crackers and hard candy.

Take small bites and chew completely.

Have 6,000-9,000mg of fish oil daily.

Have high-protein drinks such as smoothies once or twice daily.