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Cancer Health Center

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Nutrition in Cancer Care (PDQ®): Supportive care - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Nutrition Implications of Cancer Therapies


Nutrition intervention is based on symptom management. Patients who maintain good nutrition are more likely to tolerate the side effects of treatment. Adequate calories and protein can help maintain patient strength and prevent body tissues from further catabolism. Individuals who do not consume adequate calories and protein use stored nutrients as an energy source, which leads to protein wasting and further weight loss.

Some of the more common nutrition-related side effects caused by irradiation to the head and neck include taste alterations or aversions, odynophagia (pain produced by swallowing), xerostomia, thick saliva, mucositis, dysphagia, and stricture of the upper esophagus.[4] Thoracic irradiation may be associated with esophagitis, dysphagia, or esophageal reflux. Diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, enteritis, and malabsorption of nutrients are possible side effects of pelvic or abdominal radiation.[12] (See the Nutritional Suggestions for Symptom Management section.) A prospective, randomized study of patients with colorectal cancer receiving radiation therapy demonstrated that concurrent individualized dietary counseling can improve patients' nutritional intake, status, and quality of life. These improvements, in turn, may reduce radiation-induced morbidity.[13] Patients receiving high-dose radiation or bone marrow transplant should consult with a dietician.

Suggestions for appropriate dietary modifications based on nutrition-related symptoms are widely available for patient and healthcare professional use. For a full listing of dietary suggestions see the Tumor-Induced Effects on Nutritional Status section. A list of appropriate references is also included below.

Many patients who are undergoing radiation therapy will benefit from nutritional supplements between meals.[14] Aggressive nutritional support is indicated when oral intake alone fails to maintain an individual's weight. Tube feedings are used more frequently than parenteral nutrition, primarily to preserve gastrointestinal function. Tube feedings are usually well tolerated, pose less risk to the patient than parenteral feedings, and are more cost effective. Numerous studies demonstrate the benefit of enteral feedings initiated at the onset of treatment, specifically treatment to head and neck regions, before significant weight loss has occurred.[15,16,17]

Many nutrition-related side effects result from radiation therapy. Quality of life and nutritional intake can be improved by managing these side effects through appropriate medical nutritional therapy and dietary modifications.

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