One is never prepared for the call notifying them of the grave illness of a friend or family member. It comes without warning, knocking you in the stomach and taking your breath away. For me that call, along with a major life change, came in September of 2009. “I have a brain tumor and I don’t want to die,” my friend Eric said tearfully.
The diagnosis was an inoperable glioblastoma. My friend Eric was, or had been, the picture of health. At one time a fitness trainer, Eric was in great shape, ate well and generally took care of himself. But something was happening to his body when he arrived home one night from work and half of his face was drooping and he was slurring his words. Two days in the hospital and a battery of tests later identified the culprit and treatment started immediately.
As a friend, you want to do anything you can to help out and, being a big believer in the value of food and nutrition in healthcare, I focused on helping Eric with his nutrition. Unfortunately Eric passed away 7 months later. Not long afterward, my 78 year old father was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow. Luckily, he responded to treatment and was eligible for a bone marrow transplant.
This procedure brought with it a unique set of nutritional needs, guidelines and rules so I again became focused on the nutritional angle of recovery. My father is now 81, still fly fishing to his heart’s content and putting in work hours like he was in his 40s. A happy ending.
These two experiences, along with my lifelong passion for, and interest in, nutrition opened my eyes to the world of cancer nutrition. It was ultimately the catalyst behind my leaving a 20 year career on Wall Street to found Meals to Heal. Meals to Heal is a comprehensive oncology nutrition service serving cancer patients and their caregivers by providing solutions to the major impediments to proper nutrition:
a) fatigue and lack of energy, and other side effects, which prevent patients from preparing and eating meals
b) access to safe, evidence based information
c) access to oncology dietitians for nutritional counseling.
So, does nutrition matter?
That was the question I challenged myself to prove before leaving my job, as it was essential that there was both a need as well as evidence of its benefit. I conducted a lot of research before starting Meals to Heal and found that nutritional issues are indicated in 50% to 80% of all cancer cases. Malnutrition is the #2 secondary diagnosis in cancer patients and 1/3 of all cancer deaths are due to severe malnutrition.
In addition to a huge need, I also found that, if nutritional issues were treated, clinical and quality of life outcomes improved. Studies I found showed that proper nutrition results in less frequent and less severe side effects, improved response to treatment, fewer hospital admissions and less use of supportive care pharmaceuticals. Proper nutrition can also strengthen patients’ immune systems, helping the body to better withstand treatment and harness its resources to fight the disease. And, of course, patients’ quality of life improves when nutritional issues are addressed. In short, nutrition matters!
So what should patients and caregivers do to ensure that nutrition is part of the cancer fighting plan? First, meet with an oncology trained registered dietitian holding the Certified Specialist in Oncology (CSO) credential. If you can’t find a CSO, then make sure that the nutritionist/dietitian that you meet with is experienced in oncology.
Second, supplement what you learn from the dietitian with additional research that is evidence-based, or based on scientific study. Third, develop a proactive plan to ensure that you, or your loved one, receives proper nutrition – plan and shop for meals in advance and if you or your loved one is too tired to plan, shop and prepare meals arrange for meal delivery either through friends or services such as Meals to Heal.
There is no research that shows that nutrition will cure cancer. But there is significant research that shows proper nutrition improves the clinical and quality of life outcomes of cancer patients. You are what you eat. So make proper nutrition part of your cancer fighting plan.