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Maintaining a good diet when undergoing treatment for lung cancer

By Nicole Erickson M.Sc, Registered Dietitian


How does having cancer affect the body from a nutritional point of view?

As medical care for patients with lung cancer is continuously improving, patients are being treated with improved and potentially curative methods. However, the impact of the disease itself and the nutrition-related side effects of treatment can still contribute to unintentional weight loss, changes in appetite and/ or digestive function.  

Why do Lung cancer patients need to be concerned about diet?

Lung cancer and its treatment is known to interfere significantly with appetite and energy intake.1,2 Energy needs may increase, but food intake may decline. It is also possible for food preparation and intake changes to become a burden due to lack of energy.3 A simple lack of appetite, or other factors like breathlessness may make it difficult to eat even if you want to. This puts you at an increased risk of malnutrition. Malnutrition is defined as an unwanted weight loss of 5% or more within the last 3 months.4 For a person who weighs 80 kilos, this means just a 4 kilo loss can impact not only your nutritional status, but your ability to fight the disease itself and tolerate treatment. Without proper nourishment, your immune system cannot function optimally, your muscle strength and function may decrease and you may experience an increased frequency and severity of complications.1,5,6 It is therefore of utmost importance to maintain your weight and avoid unintentional weight loss from the time you are diagnosed until your treatment has been completed and all side effects have been eliminated.

What is a dietician and how can they help somebody with cancer when it comes to planning nutritious meals?

Dieticians are legally recognized, degree-qualified health care professionals specially trained to that assess, diagnose and treat nutrition problems. Dieticians are required to complete a pre-defined number of clinical practice hours and pass a national certification exam. This ensures that they are able to help people make the appropriate food choices for their current medical condition and nutrition status. Dieticians who specialize in cancer care can provide practical, safe advice, based on current scientific evidence and are uniquely qualified to optimise dietary intake for adults and children diagnosed with cancer.

There’s a lot of information on the internet about what to eat when you have cancer – but not all of it has been backed up with studies to ensure that the advice is safe or even proven to really work. For that reason, it’s especially important to work closely with your doctor, nurse, and a dietician when it comes to taking care of your body, as they can give you advice that is specific to your particular cancer and treatment. You shouldn’t make any significant changes to your diet, medicines, or exercise regimen before talking with your healthcare team first.

When should somebody with cancer get in touch with a dietician?

You can consult a dietician at any time. In fact, working with a dietician early after your diagnosis can help prepare your body for any changes that treatment, cancer, or side effects might have, and get you as strong and healthy as possible.

Additionally, you might want to ask your doctor for a referral to a registered dietitian if you have questions or concerns about nutrition, are interested in following specific dietary advice, are considering taking any type of nutritional supplements, or are experiencing trouble ingesting and/or digesting foods or if you have experienced unintentional weight loss.

How can somebody with cancer get in touch with a dietician?

Dieticians work within healthcare systems. Patients with cancer can usually be referred by a GP or any doctor, or health professional. You can also contact your local hospital nutrition and dietetics team directly, or search for a dietician who practices privately – however ensure that they are properly qualified if you do so.

What can I expect when I see a dietician?

The dietician will ask you questions pertaining to your diet and medical history, current treatment methods and medications, your height and weight, as well as your weight history, allergies, social and environmental issues that may impact your nutritional intake and also enquire about nutrition-related symptoms. They will then provide nutrition advice tailored to your current needs and may design a meal plan and/or encourage you to keep a diary of your symptoms or of the foods that you eat.

  1. Kiss N. Lung Cancer (Auckl) 2016; 7:1–9.
  2. Seo Y et al.. Nutr Cancer 2019; 1 –10.
  3. Beach P et al. Oncol Nurs Forum 2001; 28(6): 1027 –1031.
  4. Cederholm T et al. Clin Nutr 2015 ;34(3): 335 –340.
  5. Arrieta O, et al. Oncologist 2015; 20(8): 967 –974.
  6. Alifano M et al. PLoS One 2014; 9(9): e106914.