Here’s why cancer patients must focus on diet during treatment

Updated on Jan 04, 2016 07:06 PM IST

Chemotherapy affects patients’ appetite and the ability to digest nutrients.

Dr Gauri Kapoor of the Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Hospital checks Krishna, a cancer patient. Dr Kapoor has come up with a nutrition guide for children with cancer.(Saumya Khandelwal/HT Photo)
Dr Gauri Kapoor of the Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Hospital checks Krishna, a cancer patient. Dr Kapoor has come up with a nutrition guide for children with cancer.(Saumya Khandelwal/HT Photo)
Hindustan Times | By, New Delhi

One of four people with cancer are forced to stop treatment because they are under-nourished and their bodies cannot cope with the toxic side effects of radiation and chemotherapy.

“They are fine when the treatment begins, but as it progresses, usually after the third week, it takes its toll on their bodies and nearly 25% of those on radiation and chemo are forced to stop treatment,” says Dr Harit Chaturvedi, director, surgical oncology, Max Super-speciality Hospital in Saket. “For major surgeries, the complication rate jumps by 35% to 40% in people with cancer whose nutrition levels are low,” Dr Chaturvedi said.

Nutrition plays an important role in cancer treatment, which makes it crucial to have a diet plan while undergoing and after cancer treatment.

Cancer and its treatments lowers appetite, tolerance to different foods, and the ability to digest nutrients. Apart from calculating the body mass index (BMI), skin-fold thickness to measure fat under the skin and albumin count are taken to determine whether a patient can bear treatment.

Last week, Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Institute launched a nutrition guide for children with cancer, an initiative welcomed by parents who are faced with the herculean task of planning meals. Thirty-eight-year-old Rekha Singh (name-changed on request) has a 12-year-old son suffering from Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia ( ALL), which accounts for more than 30% of all childhood cancers. Her son is undergoing chemotherapy and she says most of her waking hours are spent in deciding what to feed him.

“Doctors say he should be given a balanced diet to bear the effect of drugs that are being pumped into his system, but since the therapy started his appetite has died and he refuses to eat anything,” says the east Delhi-based housewife.

“Overall, people with cancer have multiple deficiencies; but what is most import from the treatment point-of-view is that their energy requirements must be met so that they do not lose weight,” says Dr Gauri Kapoor, director, department of paediatric haematology and oncologist, Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Institute. The guide has been a result of Dr Kapoor’s efforts. “Losing weight means their nutrition levels are dropping, making them prone to infections that compromise the chances of success of treatment,” she adds.

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Broadly speaking, people undergoing cancer treatment— radiation or chemotherapy, suffer from vitamin D, folic acid, vitamin B12, iron and zinc deficiency as the drugs used in the treatment tend to deplete vital nutrients from the body or hamper their absorption. Doctors recommend consulting a dietician to have a customised diet chart made for cancer patients. “They also have low immunity so one needs to be careful with not only what they are eating but also how so that the food they eat isn’t contaminated,” said nutritionist Nandini Sachdeva, who runs a clinic in Defence Colony.


    Rhythma Kaul works as an assistant editor at Hindustan Times. She covers health and related topics, including ministry of health and family welfare, government of India.

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