Many people with cancer who want to try complementary therapies decide to make nutritional changes. Some people want to alter their diet to help their body cope with the effects of cancer and its treatments, and to give themselves the best chance of recovery.
Many therapies incorporate general dietary advice, while some have their own specific approaches to diet. Most doctors, cancer nurses and dietitians recommend eating a balanced diet. However, for some people undergoing cancer treatment, this is not always possible. An accredited practising dietitian can work with you to ensure you are meeting your nutritional needs, give you tailored advice on your nutrition and coping with any eating problems you may experience, and assist in managing side effects. You can also call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for free information on eating well.
Some people with cancer choose Gerson therapy as an alternative treatment. Gerson therapy involves a special diet, including drinking fresh juice several times a day, taking supplements, and having coffee enemas. There is no scientific evidence that Gerson therapy is an effective treatment for cancer, and evidence shows that coffee enemas can be dangerous if used excessively.
Benefits: Good nutrition before, during and after treatment can help you to cope better with side effects, increase energy and maintain wellbeing. Vegetables and fruit contain not only vitamins and minerals, but also phytochemicals – natural substances such as antioxidants that may destroy cancer-causing agents (carcinogens).
Cancer Council recommends people with cancer follow the Australian Dietary Guidelines of two serves of fruit and five serves of vegetables daily. Fruit and vegetables are best eaten fresh and whole rather than as a supplement or juice. Consuming a variety of both cooked and raw vegetables is recommended.
What it is: This is a broad field of health care and provides a particular focus on the foods you eat and how they affect your health and wellbeing. This approach generally promotes the use of whole foods, organic foods and certain food types.
Why use it: For your body to function efficiently, you need to eat a balanced diet of fats, proteins and carbohydrates. You also need vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other nutrients found in fresh food. If you are deficient in certain nutrients, your body cannot function at its best and you may experience worse side effects from cancer treatment, develop new symptoms, or take longer to recover.
What to expect: A naturopathic nutritionist develops a treatment plan that is focused on creating diets from nutrient-rich food. You will be encouraged to avoid or minimise consumption of artificial flavours and chemicals. You may also be prescribed specific supplements.
Evidence: There is clinical evidence to show that eating a healthy, balanced diet can reduce people’s cancer risk, and can help people recover from cancer treatment.
Differences between nutritionists and dietitians
The term nutritionist refers to both qualified nutrition scientists and naturopathic nutritionists. Some dietitians also call themselves nutritionists.
Nutritionists working in the natural health industry should have at least a diploma of nutrition, or equivalent, from a university or naturopathic college. Those working within a naturopathic framework are usually employed in private practice or in a holistic medical or complementary therapies centre. Practitioners will approach dietary issues differently according to their level of training and qualifications.
To become accredited, dietitians need university qualifications in science, nutrition and dietetics. Using scientific evidence, they modify people’s diets to help treat disease symptoms and to get the most out of food without the use of supplements. They often work within a conventional medical framework in hospitals, aged care facilities and medical practices.
For cancer patients, a dietitian works out specialised diets, helps with weight issues, and makes sure you are adequately nourished if you have eating difficulties. You may be given supplements if you are unable to meet your nutritional requirements through diet alone.
You might see a dietitian when you go to hospital, or privately after your treatment. If your GP refers you to a dietitian as part of a Chronic Disease Management Plan, you may be eligible for a Medicare rebate.