This post authored by Chelsea Johnson, MS, RD, LDN – Clinical Dietitian, Thompson Cancer Survival Center
Why do we, clinical dietitians, talk about healing? Surgeries, treatment side effects, injuries, and chronic wounds are all reasons why healing is a priority for cancer patients. Proper healing helps patients continue treatment and their daily activities. Surprisingly, nutrition plays a pivotal role in recovery. The healing process requires extra energy, protein, vitamins, and minerals.
Remember: There is no magic food or dietary supplement. Foods and beverages work together, harmoniously to help the body recover.
Chemotherapy, radiation, and cancer itself can influence how much someone eats. Think of food as fuel. If the body does not get enough fuel, it will start making its own by breaking down muscle and fat. This means less energy is left for healing. Calories are the key to maintaining appropriate levels of “fuel”. The terms “energy” and “calorie” can be used interchangeably when talking about food since a calorie is a unit of energy.
Tip: To meet the body’s demand for energy, stick to a schedule to eat regardless of appetite cues. Treat eating like a medication regimen. Fill your pantry and fridge with ready-to-grab, high-quality snacks: nuts, Greek yogurts, hardboiled eggs, cottage cheese with fruit, hummus, and whole-grain crackers.
According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) of 2018, 40% of adults over the age of 50 do not eat enough protein. Cancer patients have even higher protein needs than the average adult.
Glutamine and arginine are amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Research suggests that glutamine and arginine play a role in healing and muscle mass preservation. Glutamine and arginine are found in complete proteins – meaning they contain all essential amino acids- like eggs, chicken, fish, and chia seeds. Oral nutrition supplements or homemade protein shakes are also a great tool to meet your body’s demand for more calories and protein.
Research suggests a diet rich in plant-based foods, including plant-based proteins, can reduce cancer risks. Incorporate plant-based proteins like black beans, lentils, chickpeas, almonds, and tofu. Include protein-rich food at every meal and snack.
Tip: Pack protein into something like a sweet parfait.
Specific vitamins and minerals play key roles in healing. Vitamin C, E, Zinc, and B12 work to repair tissues. Foods high in Vitamin C, a powerhouse antioxidant, are citrus fruits, leafy greens, and bell peppers. Vitamin E, another type of antioxidant, is found in nuts, leafy greens, and avocados. Zinc helps make proteins and can be found in red meats and beans.
The overwhelming benefits of real foods outweigh taking general vitamin and mineral supplements. If you are found to be deficient in a nutrient, a healthcare professional can recommend a supplement.
Tip: Load your plate with vibrant colors! Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are rich in cancer-fighting, wound-healing nutrients. Each food group plays a part in contributing unique nutrients. Check out the New American Plate from the American Institute of Research to see how you can tweak your plate to get the most out of a meal.
Staying hydrated helps your blood carry essential nutrients to areas of healing. Think of fluids like the delivery truck that drops off what you need, right where you need it. This is important because dehydration can delay recovery. Not to mention, staying hydrated is key to tolerating chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Types of hydrating beverages include water, juices, and sports drinks. Water content is high in foods like watermelon, berries, popsicles, and gelatin.
Tip: Check your body for things like a dry mouth and lips, dry and flaking skin, little or no urine, and lack of energy. This is especially important during summertime! Your body could be telling you to hydrate.
There are, of course, many factors that play a role in the healing process. Blood sugar is a major factor. If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with diabetes mellitus, it is even more crucial to manage blood sugars for recovery. Consult with your primary care physician and registered dietitian for support in managing blood sugars.
Smoking not only has health risks like cardiovascular disease and cancer but a less recognized risk of smoking is delayed wound healing. This is important to address since even one cigarette per day can increase risks for infection and poor wound healing. Talk to your healthcare team about your goals around smoking cessation.
Nutrition and wound healing_high resolution_tcm1423-128535.pdf (abbottnutrition.com)
ESPEN expert group recommendations for action against cancer-related malnutrition – ScienceDirect
Radiation and Diet (eatright.org)
Nutrition Tips to Improve Wound Healing (clevelandclinic.org)
Fast Facts and Fact Sheets | Smoking & Tobacco Use | CDC
New American Plate – American Institute for Cancer Research (aicr.org)