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What Does a Cancer Nutritionist Do?

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There are few things more frightening than grappling with a cancer diagnosis. It can be difficult to know the right way to handle the news and how to proceed. But there are many coping mechanisms to help make this stressful time a little easier and avoid feeling powerless. Firstly, try to get as much basic information about your health condition as you can. Talk to your doctor and explore helpful websites and books available. The more you know, the less frightened you may feel. 

One of the most challenging parts of cancer is dealing with your body’s physical changes during cancer treatment and radiation therapy. One of the best people to help you through this transition and learn more about oncology nutrition is a cancer nutritionist. This healthcare professional can help you combat these physical changes and maintain a healthy lifestyle during treatment by teaching you about proper nutrition. 

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At a Glance: 

  • What is a Cancer Nutritionist? – Cancer nutritionists work with patients to develop individualized meal plans that address the unique nutritional needs of each person.
  • Am I a good candidate to work with a cancer nutritionist? – Most individuals undergoing cancer treatment can benefit from working with a cancer nutritionist, including individuals who have dry mouth, nausea, vomiting, and constipation.
  • How a cancer nutritionist can help you create healthy lifestyle choices – A cancer nutritionist can help you overcome a loss in appetite, weight gain, and fatigue, among other things. 

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What Is a Cancer Nutritionist?

Cancer nutritionists are healthcare professionals who specialize in the dietary management of cancer patients. They work with patients to develop individualized meal plans that address the unique nutritional needs of each person. After gathering more information about your medical history and current state of health, a dietitian will also help you develop specific food-related goals. This plan will likely include lots of fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins. But it may also include foods that you may not have expected, like milkshakes. 

Cancer nutritionists also guide you on how to cope with the side effects of cancer treatments, such as fatigue, changes in appetite, nausea, vomiting, and mouth sores. In addition, they may offer advice on how to maintain a healthy body weight during cancer treatment.

Am I a Good Candidate to Work with a Cancer Nutritionist?

Whether you have breast cancer or colon cancer, all people with cancer can benefit from working with a cancer nutritionist. If you are experiencing one of the scenarios below, a cancer nutritionist can help you remedy your symptoms. 

Dry Mouth

People who are undergoing chemotherapy or radiation therapy often suffer from dry mouth. Dry mouth can make you feel thirstier than usual and can also cause your saliva to thicken. 

There are various ways that a nutritionist can help you overcome this symptom. A nutritionist may suggest various strategies to avoid dry mouth, including adding lemon or lime to water and adding citrus to your salad dressings. Chewing on sugar-free gum and avoiding alcohol and caffeinated drinks can also help remedy dry mouth. 

To help further understand what is causing this symptom, a nutritionist may ask you to keep a log of what liquids you are consuming and how often. 

Constipation

People with cancer often experience constipation. Constipation can be caused by dehydration and inactivity. Chemotherapy can also be a source of backup. 

Thankfully, there are ways that constipation can be resolved. To get a better idea of what is causing this change in bowel movement, a nutritionist will most likely ask for you to begin documenting the fluids you consume and how often you consume each liquid. 

A nutritionist can help you strategize various tactics to help alleviate this symptom. Incorporating fluids into your diet, such as prune juice, apple juice, and hot drinks, like tea and decaffeinated coffee, can help increase bowel movement. Similarly, adding high-fiber foods to your daily meals can also help with constipation. A nutritionist may suggest consuming more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and nuts. 

Nausea and Vomiting

Approximately 70-80% of cancer patients receiving chemotherapy are at risk for nausea and vomiting. Nausea and vomiting are particularly frequent in patients who are receiving radiation treatment in the brain, gastrointestinal tract, and liver. 

We all have foods that we can stomach, even when we are sick, and a nutritionist can help you brainstorm a collection of foods to eat when you are feeling under the weather. Additionally, a nutritionist may suggest eating smaller “meals” every one to two others, consuming flavorless foods, including crackers, rice, and bread, drinking ginger tea, and limiting your intake of greasy and heavy foods. 

If your nausea and vomiting symptoms continue to worsen, a nutritionist can also recommend medications and dietary supplements to ease these symptoms. 

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How a Cancer Nutritionist Can Help You Create Healthy Lifestyle Choices

Many cancer patients are worried that oncology dietitians and nutritionists will be critical of their current diet. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Cancer nutritionists are there to make your life easier during this challenging time, not harder. Here are some of the benefits of working with a cancer nutritionist

Prevent Weight Loss and Malnourishment

Due to the common symptoms caused by radiation treatment and chemotherapy, including nausea and vomiting, many patients experience a decrease in appetite and hunger levels. 

Cancer can also change your metabolism and the way that your body converts food into energy. Eating less than what your body needs can lead to serious complications, including weight loss, more side effects during treatment, breaks in treatment, fatigue, and in some cases, malnutrition. 

To help you avoid extreme weight loss and malnutrition, your nutritionist can recommend strategies to utilize when you don’t feel hungry or when you get full too quickly. Eating smaller meals throughout the day, sticking to a strict eating and drink schedule, and keeping snacks on your nightstand or bedside table are all strategies to use when you don’t feel hungry. 

Manage Weight Gain

While many people with cancer feel less hungry during treatment, other patients feel hungrier. Eating plenty of food is key to keeping up your strength and ensuring positive treatment outcomes, but eating too much food can lead to unhealthy weight gain. A nutritionist can help you steer clear of unwanted weight gain by recommending what foods to incorporate into your diet and what foods to avoid. 

A cancer patient who is feeling more hungry during treatment should consume higher-fiber foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, as well as lean proteins, including chicken, turkey, fish, and beans. Drinking more tea, decaffeinated coffee, and seltzer water will also help an individual maintain a healthy weight. A nutritionist will recommend avoiding high-calorie foods such as pizza, ice cream, baked goods, and processed foods. 

Boost Energy

Cancer treatment symptoms tend to vary based on where you are receiving radiation treatment. For example, individuals who are receiving radiation treatment in the GI and liver tend to experience a higher frequency of nausea and vomiting. 

That said, cancer patients across the board experience fatigue. The more exhausted you are, the more difficult it is to prepare healthy and nutritious meals for yourself. That’s where a cancer nutritionist comes in. An oncology dietitian or nutritionist can recommend affordable meal delivery services, as well as easy soups and stews that can be made on days when you have more energy. These meals can then be frozen for later use.

Creating a Survival Kit

When you are going through treatment, there are undoubtedly going to be days when you don’t have the energy to prepare healthy and nutritious meals. A nutritionist can help prepare you for these moments by helping you craft a cancer survival kit. This survival kit will include meals that are easy to prepare or require no preparation at all, including microwaveable rice, canned beans, tuna, microwavable vegetables, peanut butter, fruits and veggies, yogurts, and cheese sticks. 

Make sure to also ask your nutritionist for a list of healthy recipes that you can make on days when you have a little more energy and stamina. 

Food Safety

While you always want to steer clear of food-borne illnesses such as salmonella and food poisoning, it is especially prudent for cancer patients to avoid these illnesses. People with cancer already have a weaker immune system, and certain cancer treatments can make it much harder to fight off infections. Even if you are already fairly familiar with how to avoid food-borne illnesses, your nutritionist will give you a quick refresher course. Some nutritionists may even provide you with a checklist to follow when preparing meals. 

To avoid food-borne illnesses, “washing” will be your new best friend. You not only want to wash your hands before eating, but you also want to keep all of your surfaces clean. All fruits and vegetables should also be rinsed thoroughly before consumption. A nutritionist may also advise that you avoid consuming foods such as raw milk or cheese, sprouts, undercooked eggs, and sushi during treatment. 

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Is a Cancer Registered Dietitian the Same as a Cancer Nutritionist?

While cancer dietitians and nutritionists perform similar services, these titles are not interchangeable. The main difference between the two roles lies in their background and credentials. 

All registered dietitians (RD) and registered dietitian nutritionists (RDN) have a bachelor’s degree, supervised experience working with cancer patients, and have received a certification from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Meanwhile, nutritionists have varying levels of expertise. Some nutritionists hold advanced degrees and have received certification from the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists (BCNS). However, some states do not require certification, making it possible for anyone in those states to practice nutrition. 

Setting Realistic Goals for Working with a Cancer Nutritionist

A cancer nutritionist can help improve your quality of life before and after treatment in various ways. That said, a cancer nutritionist is not a band-aid solution to all the side effects you are experiencing during treatment. This healthcare professional will work alongside the rest of your medical team, as well as encourage you to implement changes in your diet. A cancer nutritionist will equip you with all of the tools you need to implement rewarding changes in your diet, but it is up to you to make those changes into reality. 

How to Get Started with a Cancer Nutritionist Today

With online services like Thrive, it’s very easy to get started with a cancer nutritionist near me. All you need to do is fill out a short quiz providing the Thrive team with basic information about yourself. After that, Thrive’s team will match you with a compatible nutritionist in its network. 

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About the author

Mariel Miranda
Mariel is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she lends her talents to creating valuable content that enriches communities, strengthens cultures, and moves people to change. With over ten years of writing experience and as an advocate for physiological well-being, her breadth of work extends from parenting podcasts to health and wellness pieces.

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