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What Is a Cancer Nutritionist?

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Whether you have just been diagnosed with cancer, are currently undergoing treatment, or are finishing up treatment, it is normal to feel overwhelmed and uncertain about what the future holds. As disheartening as cancer treatment can be, you don’t have to go through this experience alone. From support groups to friends and family, there are many resources you can turn to whether you need help with childcare, transportation, or simply need someone to talk to during this trying time.

Cancer treatment can be emotionally and physically draining. You need to take care of yourself both during and after treatment, which includes eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and getting plenty of rest. All of these things will help your body heal and give you the energy you need to deal with the other challenges that come with cancer treatment. One of the best people to help you take care of your health during this time and fight cancer is a cancer nutritionist.  

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At A Glance:

  • What role does a cancer nutritionist take on? – A cancer nutritionist will create a personalized plan to address your symptoms and ensure you are getting proper nutrition during treatment.
  • What are the benefits of working with a cancer nutritionist? – Working with a cancer nutritionist takes the stress out of meals and can help make cancer easier to live with. This relationship also provides patients with additional support and accountability
  • Am I a good candidate for a cancer nutritionist? – Anyone with cancer can benefit from working with a cancer nutritionist. Nutritionists can assist with symptoms such as fluctuations in appetite, fatigue, nausea, and vomiting 

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The Relationship Between You and Your Cancer Nutritionist

First things first: what is a cancer nutritionist? If you or someone you know is living with cancer, you probably have a lot of questions about nutritional intake and how it can affect cancer treatment. A registered dietitian nutritionist can provide reliable information on oncology nutrition to help you make the best choices for your situation.

Cancer and its treatments can cause changes in appetite, weight, and how the body processes nutrients. These changes can impact your energy levels, strength, and ability to fight infection. That said, eating well can be difficult when you are experiencing nausea and fatigue and don’t have the energy to cook. That’s where a cancer nutritionist comes in. 

By working with a cancer nutritionist, you can create a personalized plan to address your symptoms and help improve your overall health during treatment. A cancer nutritionist can provide guidance on which foods to eat (and avoid) to help manage side effects like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, mouth sores, and fatigue. They can also offer advice on maintaining a healthy weight, getting adequate nutrients, and coping with emotional eating. An RDN can be a valuable member of your healthcare team throughout your cancer journey.

After gathering information about your cancer journey, a registered dietitian will help you create a nutrition plan with food-related goals. Many of these goals will be specific to the patient. For instance, if you experienced dramatic weight loss during chemotherapy, then your food-related goal may be to gain 20 pounds. To help increase your body mass, a nutritionist will also give you calorie and protein points of reference to use daily. What is a cancer dietitian? This practitioner also provides you with recipes, lists of foods, any necessary dietary supplements, and vitamins, as well as recommended reading. 

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What Does a Cancer Nutritionist Do?

During your first session, your nutritionist will perform a physical assessment. This assessment will provide your nutritionist with a realistic starting point when developing your meal plan. Up to 85% of cancer patients experience malnutrition during their treatment, so your nutritionist will be looking out for signs of fat and muscle loss, thinning hair, brittle nails, and other warning signs of nutrition imbalance. 

Your nutritionist will also likely ask you to answer simple questions or fill out a short questionnaire to get a feel for what you eat and drink daily. These questions will revolve around the number of meals you eat per day, what times of day you typically eat your meals, what your favorite foods are, and the foods that you crave when you are feeling under the weather. Your nutritionist will also ask you about what medications, supplements, and vitamins you are currently taking. 

What Is the Difference Between a Cancer Nutritionist and a Cancer Dietitian?

While cancer nutritionists and cancer dietitians perform similar services, these roles and titles are not the same. Cancer nutritionists focus on the role of nutrition in cancer prevention and treatment, while cancer dietitians focus on providing individualized nutrition counseling and education to cancer patients. Cancer nutritionists have a degree in nutrition, while cancer dietitians have a degree in dietetics. 

With that said, the main difference between the two roles is that nutritionists and dietitians have different credentials. Every registered dietitian has a bachelor’s degree with coursework approved by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, supervised experience working at an accredited healthcare facility, community agency, or food service corporation, and has passed a national exam administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration. Every registered dietitian will have the letters “RD” or “RDN” in their title. 

On the other hand, the process of becoming a nutritionist is far less streamlined. The title “nutritionist” can be applied to anyone in the United States who provides clients with general nutritional advice. However, many nutritionists hold advanced degrees in their fields.

What Are the Credentials of a Cancer Nutritionist?

If you want to work with a top nutritionist, then you want to be on the lookout for a certified nutrition specialist (CNS). A CNS is the most advanced certification for personalized nutrition practitioners. To receive this title, every CNS will have completed the following steps discussed below. 

Education

While some nutritionists may have little to no professional training, that can not be said of certified nutrition specialists. Every CNS must receive more than just a bachelor’s degree to be a certified nutrition specialist. A CNS will have either a Master of Science or a doctoral degree in nutrition or a related field (MD, DO, DDS, DPM, Doctor of Nursing, etc.). In the process of receiving that degree, the individual will have completed at least 35 hours of relevant coursework related to the practice of personalized nutrition. These courses will be in nutrition, biochemistry, physiology, and clinical, life, or physical sciences. 

Supervised Experience

Similar to registered dietitians, cancer nutritionists must receive sufficient practical experience before they begin to treat patients. Before A CNS-in-training can sit for the final exam, they must complete at least 1,000 hours of supervised experience. A CNS-in-training can complete this supervised experience at an accredited healthcare facility, community agency, or food service corporation, among other places. 

Exam

After completing the theoretical and practical portions of their training, cancer nutritionists in training must sit for the Certification Examinations for Nutrition Specialists. Only students who receive a passing grade can then move forward to becoming certified nutritionist specialists. 

Further Education

Even after a nutritionist becomes board certified, their education is not over. Certified nutrition specialists must continue to educate themselves throughout their careers. For instance, in the state of Virginia, all certified nutrition specialists must complete at least 75 hours of approved education in nutrition every 5 years. 

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What Are the Benefits of Working with a Cancer Nutritionist?

There are many ways that working with a cancer nutritionist is far more beneficial than going at it alone. Here are some benefits of working with a cancer nutritionist when you are going through treatment. 

Have Someone Do the Heavy Lifting

Cancer patients have a lot on their plate. In addition to managing their disease, they also have to contend with the side effects of treatment, which can include everything from fatigue and nausea to mouth sores and weight loss. An oncology dietitian can be a valuable member of the care team, helping patients to manage these side effects and maintain their nutrition during treatment. More often than not, the last thing that people with cancer want to do at the end of the day is sit down and prepare a homemade meal for themselves. 

A cancer nutritionist can help make mealtimes more manageable and more enjoyable by suggesting simple, practical tips and advice to help you achieve your nutritional needs. Cancer nutritionists can also provide their patients with healthy recipes that are not too complicated to make.

Additional Support

When you are going through cancer treatments, there’s no such thing as having too many people in your medical team and support system. Your pharmacist is there to fill your prescriptions, your psychiatrist is there to look after your mental health, and your friends and family are there to hold your hand and help you manage other life tasks and responsibilities. 

A nutritionist is available to help improve your nutritional health and make mealtimes easier. Having additional support in this area can help make the treatment process easier and can provide much-needed practical assistance around dietary guidance, a patient's nutrition, and general cancer care.

Accountability

It can be difficult for a cancer patient’s friends and family to hold them accountable for their goals. After seeing their loved ones go through an endless sequence of difficult days, the last thing they want is to upset them further or make them feel like they are not doing enough. The professional relationship between cancer patients and their nutritionists makes this far easier to achieve. 

Working with a nutritionist gives cancer patients extra incentive to work towards their goals. A cancer nutritionist will check on their patients' progress, ask how they’ve been doing, and push them towards their goals when necessary. 

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

Most cancer patients could benefit from the help and support of a cancer nutritionist. However, if you are grappling with one of the symptoms discussed below, strongly consider starting your online search for ‘nutritionist near me’. 

Changes in Hunger 

Cancer can change your metabolism—the way your body converts food into energy. This can lead to changes in appetite, from not feeling hungry to feeling hungrier than usual. A cancer nutritionist can help remedy both issues. If you tend to feel sick or full after a few bites of food, then your dietitian might suggest eating smaller meals throughout the day, sticking to an eating and drinking schedule at exact times, and keeping snacks by your desk or nightstand. Sometimes, turning meal times into a fun affair involving friends, music, and an atmospheric setting can also help make mealtimes more enjoyable. 

Other times, patients may experience the opposite problem, where they can’t stop eating. In this case, a dietitian will likely recommend limiting processed and fast foods and consuming high-fiber foods, lean proteins, and drinking more tea, decaffeinated coffee, and water with lemon between meals. This will allow a patient to maintain a healthy and lean body mass when undergoing treatment.

Feeling Tired

Fatigue is one of the most common side effects of cancer treatment. Approximately 98% of patients who undergo chemotherapy experience extreme fatigue. Feeling constantly tired and exhausted also inhibits an individual’s ability to cook healthy, nutritious meals for themselves. 

Thankfully, a nutritionist can help you remedy this issue through minor alterations to your diet. A registered dietitian nutritionist may suggest cooking soups, stews, or casseroles on days that you have more energy and putting these meals in the freezer for consumption later. Friends and family may even be able to help create these freezable meals and could take turns bringing them over. 

A nutritionist may also suggest certain pre-made products you can purchase that are still healthy and nutritious. Depending on a patient’s budget, a nutritionist may also recommend a meal delivery service. 

Every cancer patient should also have a “survival kit” of foods that they can eat on days when they have no energy to cook. Some of these foods include microwaveable rice, canned beans, tuna, microwaveable vegetables, peanut butter, single-serving yogurts, and cheese sticks. 

Nausea and Vomiting

It is not uncommon for patients who receive chemotherapy to experience nausea and vomiting after the fact. This is especially common for patients who are receiving radiation therapy in the brain, gastrointestinal tract, and liver. Oncology dietitians can help you brainstorm foods that you will want to eat even in moments when you are feeling sick or have difficulty swallowing. There are other strategies that your dietitian will recommend for moments when you are experiencing stomach discomfort. Eating small portions of food every one to two hours, eating bland foods like crackers and rice, consuming ginger-flavored beverages and candy, and cutting back on greasy and heavy foods are all ways to diminish nausea, vomiting, and other stomach pain and discomfort. 

We’re Ready When You Are

We are rooting for you, and we want to help you in your fight to become or remain cancer-free. The best way we know how to is by supporting you through nutrition. We understand that selecting your treatment options can be overwhelming. Our team is here for you. You’re going to need to preserve your strength for the fight ahead, so let our team take care of the day-to-day things like nourishing your body. We’re in this together. 

Read more about what a cancer nutritionist does here. 

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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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