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Nutrition During Cancer Treatment

Surviving and thriving

Healthy protein sources: eggs, milk, nutsMany people don't consider how important good nutrition is during treatment for cancer, but keeping your body healthy can make a contribution to improved outcomes. Studies have shown that striving to maintain your weight during treatment can give you better tolerance to the treatment, decrease the severity of side effects and improve survival.

"You should think of nutrition as part of the treatment plan," says Cheryl A. Sullivan, MS, RD, CNSD, a clinical nutritionist who specializes in nutrition for patients with cancer. Sullivan works with the Department of Radiation Oncology and the Cancer Integrative Medicine Program at Rush.

"During treatment your body requires more calories and more protein to maintain weight. You want to avoid loosing lean body mass," says Sullivan. "We work closely with our patients to create a nutrition plan that will work well for them."

Unfortunately, there can be a number of barriers to adequate nutrition during treatment, including:

  • Change in how food tastes and smells
  • Poor appetite
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Nausea
  • Dry mouth
  • Sore mouth
  • Vomiting

Keeping protein in your diet

"Luckily there are a number of medications to alleviate some of these side effects," says Sullivan. "We also stress eating calorie-dense foods and getting enough protein. This may be the one situation in which we don't worry about the type of food as much as the amount of protein and calories."

Some tips for adding protein to your diet:

  • Add cheese to sandwiches, soups and other dishes
  • Drink milk or soy milk instead of water
  • Add nuts and seeds to dishes and snacks
  • Use peanut butter (or other nut butters, like sesame, almond, or cashew) instead of regular butter on toast and bagels
  • Add beans and corn to soups and salads
  • Add eggs to sandwiches and salads
  • Add an extra egg white or two to a cookie or cake recipe

After treatment

"After treatment we try to help people achieve a desirable weight for their height," says Sullivan. "We want to support each person's goals and help find a plan that fits his or her lifestyle. I'm totally there to support any positive changes someone would like to make."