I found out recently that a friend has been diagnosed with cancer. It is not the first time that a friend of mine has been through the mill (she came out the other side and is fit and healthy several years later- hooray) and I have seen friends cope with family members or close friends going through tough times thanks to the big C.
It is a fact of life that people you know will get that dreaded diagnosis. Unless you have been through it yourself it is impossible to know how it feels and even if you have been through it, every person will feel differently, every cancer is different depending on where it is in the body, how quickly it was spotted, how aggressive it is and how treatment affects the patient.
We all feel pretty helpless when someone tells us something so important and sometimes we find it difficult to know what to do or what to say. We can support that friend or relative in lots of ways but there is one thing you shouldn’t do. Please.
Don’t share links on social media or the internet about diet curing cancer. As a nutritionist, I am repeatedly made aware of the power of the internet and social media for sharing nutrition and diet myths promising to cure cancer or causing fear of certain foods because ‘it feeds cancers cells’. They are powerful stories, particularly so to someone vulnerable, someone feeling helpless in the face of cancer. There are many cancer patients unnecessarily restricting what they eat because of information in books and on the internet. Information that has not got any evidence behind it, in fact we know that restriction of foods can do harm, cause weight loss and malnutrition in cancer patients. At the very worst, people choose to give up conventional treatments on the promise of an alternative treatment or a diet. People have died as a result.
The ketogenic has been a big one recently that led the Irish Dietetic Association to stand up and challenge someone advertising this diet to cancer patients. Their complaint was upheld. The Irish Times did a great very accessible article on the evidence around keto diets including a paragraph in relation to cancer. Then there is Belle Gibson, a wellness blogger, who faked cancer and her cure through diet, someone with a huge social media presence. There is a lot of misinformation about sugar ‘feeding cancer cells’ and a lot of negative press about milk and cancer. Sometimes stories start from a single piece of research that may, together with lots of other research, in the future help us understand cancer better but may never result in any specific dietary advice for patients. These theories are shared by wellness bloggers, cancer survivors who lay their own cure at the feet of a diet regimen, or people wanting to sell supplements or herbal remedies.
I understand how easy it is to read something that sounds amazing and forward it on to your friend or relative undergoing chemo. Please don’t. Always talk through any action or information you find with medical professionals or check it out via the big cancer charities, who are working so hard to help people get the all clear. It is so frustrating for oncologists, cancer nurses and oncology dietitians to have their hard work compromised because someone is doing something that actually has a negative effect on their treatment because of these kind of stories.
Often, medics treating cancer patients face the challenge of patients losing lots of weight and/or losing lean body mass (losing muscle tissue). This makes their patients more vulnerable to setbacks and less tolerant of the treatments. Following a restrictive diet can increase the chances of this happening. During cancer treatment is not the time to be losing weight. Someone being able to fit into those jeans from a couple of years back isn’t a side benefit and just what happens when someone has cancer. If a cancer patient is losing weight then it is something worth mentioning to their medical team. It shouldn’t be thought of as simply a result of having cancer, we should be working at not losing weight.
Food is important. All those (rather boring) messages put into practice can really help someone stay stronger through treatment, like eating plenty of fruit and vegetables, plenty of wholegrains and fibre, a variety of protein foods like dairy, eggs, meat, fish and pulses, a mixture of different types of fat etc. Enjoying food is important too and being able to enjoy eating with friends and family is a pleasure that shouldn’t be hampered through unnecessary restrictions, particularly by cutting out whole food groups. Every bout of chemo means the body has to rebuild the immune system again, recover from the trauma of the cure – to do this requires good nutrition which can be achieved by varied, healthy food. If the cancer requires any special diet, the medical team will be on the case with evidence based advice.
Sometimes eating itself is affected by the treatment of the cancer. Side effects can include sore mouth, nausea, tiredness, general lack of appetite. These things can make eating hard work. So at times when people are feeling unwell then the healthiest diet may not be what you would expect. Foods high in calories and nutrients might be just what that friend needs. Foods that we might think of as things we should eat less of might help someone keep their weight up and help them recover ready for the next bout of chemo. If someone is struggling to eat because of side effects then an oncology dietitian can help work something out.
How can you help? There are lots of little things that you can do to help. Any small thing that spares a little time for rest, or takes away a little stress. Can you do a bit of shopping or pick up the kids or walk the dog? Tiredness can equal not feeling up to cooking so a friend delivering a favourite meal to help the family out can be so much appreciated. Just after a bout of chemo a box of favourite snacks, a bit of chocolate or some cake that might be appetising when appetite is not really there. Pop by and bring a bit of lunch or make a cuppa and bring some favourite biscuits if they are up to having you. It won’t seem like much but those little acts of kindness and those small actions can make a huge difference. Far more beneficial than sharing that diet cancer cure you read about on facebook.
Very often people with cancer don’t ask for a hand or refuse offers of help because it seems like a big sign that they are not coping. It might be important to them to feel strong or it might be so they don’t make people worry about them. Some people don’t want to be fussed over. Don’t be offended if you offer some help and are turned down. Don’t fuss, just be there if they change their mind or offer again another time.
And don’t believe everything about diet and cancer. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.