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Nutrition & Cancer Care

Nov. 16, 2020

According to a study by the National Cancer Institute, up to 80% of cancer patients experience malnutrition at some point during treatment, depending on tumor type and stage of cancer, and malnutrition is responsible for about 1 in 5 cancer-related deaths. However, a survey published last year in the Journal of Oncology found that in outpatient cancer centers, the ratio of registered dietitians to cancer patients is about 1 to 2,300. This indicates most cancer patients will not see a dietitian, unless they are hospitalized.

Through the CaLM Model of whole-person care at the Livestrong Cancer Institutes Clinic with UT Health Austin, all patients have access to registered dietitian Krystle Zuniga, Ph.D., R.D.

In a recent interview for LCI’s podcast, “Cancer Uncovered,” Zuniga described the complexities and importance of nutrition care during cancer treatment and her role at LCI:

“Cancer treatments are designed to kill cancer cells, but they can also damage healthy cells. And this can cause side effects leading to difficulty eating such as nausea, vomiting, taste changes, lack of appetite. Surgeries can also directly impact normal digestion or absorption of nutrients. There are also, during treatment, increased calorie and protein and nutrient needs for recovery of these healthy cells during and after treatment. So, we have this problem of needing more nutrition but having more challenges in eating. That’s really where the roll of a dietitian comes in, to help patients eat well during treatment. Good nutrition can help patients maintain body weight and prevent muscle mass loss, so prevent malnutrition, reduce side effects of treatment, prevent treatment delays and impact treatment response.

“There’s not one anti-cancer diet. We personalize care plans to the specific needs of each patient, which can change throughout their journey with cancer. We recommend that patients focus on foundational needs of the body. The body absolutely needs adequate calories, protein, fluids and essential nutrients. Nutrition in cancer is not about rigid dietary restrictions but rather a tool to support the individual undergoing cancer treatment. We can use nutrition to enhance quality of life and the nutritional status of a patient.

“What I really love about our team here at LCI is how much we work collaboratively. We might have joint visits; I am in that visit, so they don’t have to meet with me separately and answer the same questions. For instance, with Emily McCloud, one of our advanced practice providers, we had a patient with a lack of appetite, so we had a meeting to discuss if an appetite stimulant or a nausea medication might be helpful, and my role was then how can we help you eat well while you are having these side effects? We work in conjunction. In my role, I try to get connected with a patient as soon as possible and then continue to monitor throughout treatment. The earlier the better, the more collaboratively the better, and I really get to do that here at LCI.”

To hear more about nutrition and cancer care, make sure to tune in to episode five of "Cancer Uncovered: An Education and Empowerment Podcast" by the Livestrong Cancer Institutes.