Research evidence shows that people who are well nourished tolerate their cancer treatments better and are at lower risk of developing complications. However, it is during treatment, when fatigue and other symptoms can be at their peak that the inclination to eat well can fall to its lowest point.
Cancer treatment can be gruelling at times and it often leaves people feeling very vulnerable and in need of lots of tender loving care. Eating foods that are unfamiliar and perhaps a little unusual at this time can add another layer of stress that is ultimately unhelpful, however nutrient-rich the food may be. Instead, the secret to eating well during cancer treatment is to remember that emotional comfort should be top priority and that the healthy foods chosen should be delivering this quality in abundance.
Preparing for treatment
In the weeks and days leading up to the start of your treatment, whether that’s chemotherapy, radiotherapy or surgery, it is very important to get yourself prepared on several levels. On a physical level you want to make sure that your immune system is functioning as well as possible and with regards to diet, the best thing you can do is to emphasise the foods that are very supportive to the immune system – vegetables and fruits, and avoid foods that undermine the immune system such as sugar and refined carbohydrates, processed fats, gluten, soya, dairy foods, caffeine and alcohol. Certain supplements such as vitamin C and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients such as curcumin and green tea extract can provide extra support during this time but get advice from a nutritionally qualified health professional regarding if and when you should stop your supplements as you get close to the start of your treatment.
Another important factor to consider is your level of vitamin D, a nutrient that is often deficient and is essential for good immune health. Get levels checked as soon as possible before treatment in order to have time to correct any deficiencies. Mental preparation for treatment is equally if not more important than physical preparation and time spent every day in a state of total relaxation practising deep breathing and visualising a positive treatment outcome is highly recommended. To help you feel emotionally ready it is also a good idea to get as organised as possible on a practical level. Enlist as much help from friends and family as possible and get your freezer stocked with healthy foods, get a rota in place for help with the chores and make sure you have a good selection of soothing music, enjoyable books and inspiring films to watch for the days when your spirit may need a lift.
During treatment it is likely that you will have days when your energy is low and you feel less than 100%. On these days it is essential that you choose foods that are familiar and comforting to you such as chicken stew and mashed potato or cottage pie and peas. Comforting foods can still be nutritious so choose high quality ingredients from which to prepare the dishes (to save you the effort ideally they would have been prepared in advance or made by someone else) and try to continue to avoid the foods listed above that undermine immunity.
Digestion can be compromised during treatment so blended foods such as soups and smoothies can be useful and if you feel you can manage a daily fresh vegetable juice this will deliver powerful healing nutrients in a very easy-to-digest form. However, it is very important not to force yourself to eat foods that are unappealing at this time as you don’t want to set up a long-term aversion due to an association of the food with treatment. One of the most comforting meals of all is soup and broths containing homemade stocks prepared by boiling meat bones for several hours pack a powerful punch when it comes to healing as compounds released from the bones have been shown to give the immune cells a boost and are also known for their gut healing properties. If you add certain vegetables, herbs and spices to the soup you can end up with a powerfully restorative and at the same time delicious, concoction - see below for my immune broth recipe using such ingredients.
Ingredients 2 kg chicken bones broken 2.5 L water 1 cooked breast of chicken 2 medium onions 4 carrots 4 sticks of celery 500g fresh shiitake mushrooms 1leek 10 cloves of garlic 2 inch piece of fresh ginger 1 handful of flat leaf parsley 1 handful of coriander 2 red chillies (optional) Olive oil
Wash the chicken bones thoroughly, slice 2 of the carrots in half, length ways and do the same with the celery. Cut 1 of the onions and 8 of the garlic cloves in half. Place the chicken and chopped vegetables in a large saucepan with the water and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat and allow the mixture to simmer for 3 hours. From time to time top up the water and skim the stock of all the scum that comes of the bones. After 3 hours strain the stock and keep the liquid. Finely chop the other onion, the remaining garlic cloves, the ginger, the chillies (if desired), the shiitake mushrooms and the leek. Cook the finely chopped vegetables in a little olive oil until softened. Take the cooked chicken breast and cut it into very fine strips. Add the finely chopped vegetables and chicken to the stock and warm through. Stir in the parsley and coriander and serve.
Once treatment finishes it is important to spend the next few weeks being very kind and gentle to yourself. Many people I work with expect that they’ll be back to normal a few days after their treatment ends and become disappointed when their energy levels and sense of wellbeing are not completely recovered by this time. Cancer treatments are tough on the body, there is no doubt about that and it can take several weeks or longer to fully recover, it is necessary that you understand this and give yourself a break. With regards to energy levels, the best way to support their recovery, apart from continuing to eat highly nutritious foods, is to find the right balance between rest and activity. Extra rest is a definite requirement following cancer treatment as the body needs to gather its resources for regeneration and healing. On the other hand, physical activity is also important to encourage healthy circulation and therefore oxygen delivery to the tissues, and support lymphatic circulation to optimise immunity. When it comes to getting the balance between rest and activity, the key is to listen closely to your body and allow it to guide you.
Never force yourself to exercise when you feel exhausted and if you feel drained following a period of activity you will know you’ve over done it. A programme of detoxification can be a powerful way to enhance recovery following treatment. The idea is to support the primary systems of elimination and detoxification in order to thoroughly cleanse the body of residual medications and other chemicals that could be compromising the body’s healing capacity. Detoxification techniques range from the very simple – drinking more water, to the more involved such as the use of herbal and nutritional products, saunas and hydrotherapy. Ideally you should have the support of a health professional when you embark on a programme of detoxification. Apart from supporting detoxification, there are other reasons that herbal and nutritional supplements can be helpful following treatment.
To give one example; certain medications, particularly antibiotics, can undermine the integrity of the gut microflora which can lead to other problems such as weakened immunity. Taking beneficial bacteria in supplement form, known as probiotics, can help to restore the healthy gut bacteria strengthening the whole body in the process. This article gives just a brief overview of how you can use nutrition and lifestyle factors to support your body around the time of your cancer treatment. There is a great deal more information to be found in books, on the Internet and from health professionals working in this field so if you have some treatment coming up or it’s already underway, my advice is to get informed and get prepared, you’ll be so glad you did!
By Liz Butler