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Ready to Take Control of Your Health? Here’s What to Look for in a Cancer Nutritionist

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Whether you have been diagnosed with breast cancer or lung cancer, colon cancer, or prostate cancer, finding out you have cancer is distressing, sad, and even devastating. It can often leave you feeling powerless and wondering how to move forward. This is not only normal, but it is also to be expected. Your diagnosis and treatment outcomes will likely be the main focus of your attention for the coming days, weeks, and months to come. Even though a cancer diagnosis can make you feel powerless, there are ways to make your cancer journey manageable. One person who should certainly be a part of your care time is a cancer nutritionist

If you are currently searching for a cancer nutritionist, you’ve come to the right place. In this article, we will discuss what to look for in the best cancer nutritionist, as well as red flags that you should watch out for and try to avoid. 

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The Bottom Line:

  • How a cancer nutritionist works with you – Cancer nutritionists work with patients to ensure that they are getting the nutrients they need to manage their disease and treatment side effects
  • Qualities to look for in a cancer nutritionist or dietitian – When you are searching for a cancer nutritionist, look for someone with credentials and strong customer service, someone within your specialty and budget, and someone with a compatible working style
  • Watch out for these red flags when considering cancer coaches, dietitians, and nutritionists – When searching for the perfect nutritionist, watch out for individuals who are making big claims, offering quick fixes, trying to sell you products, and charging a rate that is too high or too low, and individuals with no credentials

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How a Cancer Nutritionist Works with You

Cancer nutritionists are vital members of the cancer care team. They work with patients to ensure that they are getting the nutrients they need to manage their disease and treatment side effects. A good oncology dietitian will tailor a nutrition plan to each patient, taking into account their specific needs and preferences.

Oncology dietitians often play a crucial role in helping patients maintain their quality of life during treatment. They can provide practical tips on how to manage side effects such as nausea, fatigue, and mouth sores, as well as teach you about general nutrition and cancer care. They can also help patients make sure they are getting enough calories and nutrients to maintain their strength and energy levels. 

Want to learn more? Read more about what a cancer nutritionist does.

Qualities to Look For in a Cancer Nutritionist or Dietitian

While you’re scouring the internet with queries like “best cancer nutritionists near me,” you should know the criteria that each candidate should certainly meet. Here are some of the most important qualities to look for in an oncology nutritionist or dietitian. 

Credentials

In the United States, the title of “nutritionist” can be granted to any individual who gives general nutrition advice. That means some nutritionists will be highly qualified experts with advanced degrees, while other nutritionists will have little to no professional experience. 

Thankfully, there is an easy way to make sure that you are working with the best of the best. All you need to do is inquire about a nutritionist's credentials. 

The most qualified nutritionists will be registered dietitians (RD), registered dietitian nutritionists (RDN), or certified nutrition specialists (CNS). If you are considering a nutritionist with the letters “RD,” “RDN,” or “CNS” in the title, you know you are working with someone highly qualified. 

Customer Service

When you are going through cancer treatment, your oncology dietitian is going to be a person you frequently contact. Whether you are going through a health crisis or simply need advice on nutrition or meal prep, you want to be working with a nutritionist who is both a consistent and reliable communicator. Consistent communication is a vital quality in someone you need to rely on for support and advice. Additionally, you want to be working with someone who is taking your health seriously. 

Before opting for a nutritionist’s services, make sure to ask them a little bit about their customer service practices. Inquire about their preferred mode of communication and how long it usually takes for them to get back to a patient by phone or email. 

Specialty

While some nutritionists offer general nutritional advice about diet, exercise, and sleep, most nutritionists have a specific area of expertise. Some nutritionists will specialize in sports nutrition, while others may focus on prenatal nutrition. 

Before opting for a nutritionist’s services, you will want to make sure that this expert specializes in oncology nutrition. It’s paramount that your healthcare professional knows how to develop a personalized diet for when you or your loved one is undergoing radiation. 

Oncology nutritionists will not only know how to develop a nutrition plan for cancer patients, but they will also know how to develop a plan for your personal food-related goals. For instance, if you are trying to increase your body mass, an oncology dietitian will understand how to provide you with calorie and protein benchmarks to help you reach your goal. 

Work Style

When it comes to finding the best nutritionist for you, there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. The best nutritionist for you may not necessarily be the best nutritionist for someone else. Every nutritionist will have a different general approach to their sessions. While some nutritionists may be more gentle and nurturing with their encouragement, others will have a firmer hand and utilize a tough-love approach.  

During this emotionally and physically draining time, you want to work with someone who is going to appeal to your needs. Before hiring a nutritionist, ask them if the two of you can do a short phone call first. Even a brief conversation with someone will allow you to get a feel for their personality and working style. 

Budget

It’s extremely important to be working with a nutritionist that you can afford. With all of the other hospital bills you need to pay for your cancer care, the last thing you want is to be working with someone who is depleting all of your funds. Before hiring a nutritionist, sit down and calculate how much you can afford to spend on an oncology dietitian during your cancer treatment. 

It’s also worthwhile to consult your insurance company. Many health insurance companies now provide coverage for nutrition counseling. Check your policy and provider directory to see which services and providers are included in your network. 

Other Cancer Professionals Who Can Help Meet Your Nutrition Goals

If you are looking for alternatives to working with a registered dietitian nutritionist, here are some other cancer professionals that you can work with. 

Oncology Dietitian

Oncology dietitians and cancer nutritionists perform very similar services. Oncology dietitians and nutritionists are both nutrition experts who have studied how diet and dietary supplements can affect your health as you undergo radiation. While both are healthcare professionals, the titles cannot be used interchangeably. There are a few differences between the two experts. 

Firstly, dietitians and nutritionists have different credentials. Registered dietitians and dietitian nutritionists all hold a bachelor’s degree, supervised experience working at a healthcare facility, community agency, or food service corporation, and have passed a national exam. Meanwhile, certified nutrition specialists have a master’s in science, 1,000 hours of supervised experience, and have completed the Certification Examinations for Nutrition Specialists.

Nutritionists and dietitians also typically work in different facilities. Dietitians often work in hospitals, clinics, or other healthcare settings. Nutritionists, on the other hand, may work in a variety of settings, including food service, research, and education. They may also work in private practice, providing nutrition counseling and education to individuals or groups.

Cancer Coach

Another cancer professional you can work with as you undergo treatment is a cancer coach. A cancer coach helps cancer patients and survivors throughout any stage of their diagnosis. This expert will work with patients one-on-one to design a program that addresses four main components: nutrition, exercise, sleep, and stress management. Unlike dietitians and nutritionists, there is no streamlined path to becoming a cancer coach. While most coaches will have completed a program of sorts, they will all have varying levels of experience working with cancer patients and expertise in cancer research and cancer treatments.

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Watch Out for These Red Flags When Considering Cancer Coaches, Dietitians, and Nutritionists

When working with a cancer nutritionist, it’s just as important to look out for possible red flags. If your nutritionist exhibits any of the warning signs below, it may be time to find another nutritionist. 

No Credentials

The very first red flag that you should keep an eye out for is missing credentials. If a nutritionist is holding back about their professional title, education, or years of experience, this is a major warning sign. 

All registered dietitians and nutritionists should have a bachelor’s or master’s degree, have supervised experience, and have passed a board-certifying exam. If you are working with someone who does not have a title that includes “RD,” “RDN,” or “CNS” in it, then this individual may not have the background required to give sound nutrition advice. 

Pushing Products

If a nutritionist tries to sell you expensive products right off the bat, know that their motivation is to make money and not to improve your health and well-being. Unless you have unique medical needs, rarely should you ever need a special bar or powder to have a nutritious diet during radiation. 

In some cases, patients may benefit from taking nutritional supplements or vitamins. If your nutritionist prescribes you a dietary supplement, make sure that they have valid claims to back up the importance of this supplement. If you ever want a second opinion, reach out to another member of your medical team with any questions or concerns. 

Promises a Quick Fix

When people with cancer are going through treatment, they are in a very fragile and vulnerable place. If a nutritionist is taking advantage of your being overwhelmed and exhausted by promising you a “quick fix” to your health goals, this is a red flag. 

True changes in health during cancer treatment take time, whether you are working towards a lean body mass or trying to alleviate unwanted side effects. Recommendations that promise drastic change in a matter of days are likely based on false claims that are either unrealistic or unsustainable. If something ever seems too good to be true, then there’s a good chance that it is. 

Big Claims

If a nutritionist is making lots of sweeping claims without evidence to back up those claims, this is another telltale sign. Examples of sweeping claims might be “sugar worsens cancer,” “carbs are bad for you,” or “cutting meat will make you feel better.”

There is no single right way to eat when you are undergoing cancer treatment. Every individual’s diet plan should be determined by their needs, likes, dislikes, and medical history. For instance, if you dislike seafood, your dietitian or nutritionist should be able to come up with a customized nutrition plan that doesn’t include fish and other seafood. 

Too Expensive or Too Cheap

Last but not least, pay attention to a nutritionist's hourly rates. If the rates that are being offered are extremely affordable, do not be fooled by thinking that you’ve landed on a bargain. If a nutritionist’s rate is suspiciously low, then there’s a strong chance that they might not be who they say they are. 

Other nutritionists may raise their rates as soon as you sign onto their services. A nutritionist may claim that their rate increase is due to increased demand. Again, do not simply allow this to happen. It is within your right to argue that these were not the rates that you signed up for. 

What Is the Cost Breakdown of Working with a Cancer Nutritionist or Dietitian?

There are many things that you will get out of working with a cancer nutritionist. While collaborating with this healthcare professional will add an extra cost to your monthly bills, the benefits far outweigh the fees. 

Prevent or Combat Malnourishment 

Between 30 and 85 percent of cancer patients experience malnourishment when undergoing treatment. In cancer patients, malnutrition and extreme weight loss are linked with treatment toxicity, complications, reduced physical functioning, and decreased survival. Many cancer patients also experience a decrease in appetite when undergoing treatment. 

A cancer nutritionist can help prevent or combat malnourishment and weight loss by helping a cancer patient eat more daily. A nutritionist might suggest eating smaller meals throughout the day, sticking to an eating and drinking schedule, and keeping snacks handy on your desk or nightstand. Sometimes turning meal times into an exciting event can help make eating more enjoyable. A nutritionist may suggest lighting candles, putting on music, and inviting friends over several times a week at dinner time. 

Bolster strength and energy

Tiredness and fatigue are two of the most common side effects of cancer treatment, regardless of where you are receiving radiation therapy. Exhaustion can hinder an individual’s ability to cook healthy and nutritious meals for themselves day after day. 

A nutritionist can help suggest ways to make meal prep easier and more manageable. A nutritionist may suggest cooking stews and casseroles on days that you have more energy and then storing these meals in the freezer for consumption later in the week. A nutritionist can also provide you with a list of healthy and pre-made foods that you can purchase at the grocery store. 

If possible, a nutritionist may also suggest leaning on friends and family for meal support or opting for a pricier meal delivery service for added convenience. 

Dry Mouth

It is common for people who are undergoing chemotherapy or radiation therapy to experience dry mouth. Dry mouth is a condition where the salivary glands don’t produce enough saliva, leaving the mouth dry. A dry mouth can lead to thicker saliva and constant thirst. 

A nutritionist can help you combat dry mouth in various ways. Firstly, they may suggest that you avoid caffeinated and alcoholic drinks and instead opt for water with lemon or lime juice. Adding citrus to your salad dressings, chewing on sugar-free gum, and noting down your water consumption are other approaches to alleviate dry mouth. 

Diarrhea

Receiving radiation treatment in the abdomen or pelvic area can lead to diarrhea. Dehydration and electrolyte abnormalities are serious complications that can result from diarrhea. If food passes too quickly through your digestive system, this can also lead to inadequate nutrition. 

A nutritionist can help you treat diarrhea in various ways. They may recommend avoiding fatty and greasy foods, as well as high-fiber foods like fruits and vegetables. Drinking fluids with electrolytes, such as coconut water, thin fruit juices, and Pedialyte, can also aid loose stools. 

A nutritionist may also recommend sticking to a BRAT diet, which stands for bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast. 

Constipation

Chemotherapy can also interfere with normal digestive processes, causing some cancer patients to experience the opposite of diarrhea: constipation. Constipation is often caused by decreased water consumption and lack of body movement. 

There are many ways that nutritionists can help you remedy constipation. A nutritionist may recommend keeping tabs on what types of fluids you are consuming and how often. Drinking prune or apple juice, as well as hot drinks like tea and decaffeinated coffee, can alleviate blockages. Incorporating high-fiber foods into your diet, such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and nuts, can also do wonders. 

Nausea and vomiting

One of the most common side effects of chemotherapy is an upset stomach, which leads to nausea and vomiting. These side effects are especially common for people who receive radiation to the brain, gastrointestinal tract, and liver. 

Your nutritionist or dietitian can help you combat nausea and vomiting by suggesting foods to eat when you are not feeling well. Eating small portions of food every couple of hours, limiting greasy and heavy foods, consuming ginger-flavored tea and candy, and eating tasteless foods like crackers and rice can also help alleviate an upset stomach. 

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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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