Food plays a crucial role in nearly every aspect of people’s lives. Not only does it provide essential nutrition for health and healing, but it also plays a key part of social interactions, traditions and celebrations.
However, after a cancer diagnosis, many patients’ have changed relationships with food.
“I hear all the time that people’s favorite foods can become a chore. That’s a loss,” said Jill Kaplan, LCSW, a social worker from the Cancer Support Community of Central New Jersey. Kaplan recently spoke to patients, survivors and caregivers at a seminar called “Nutrition for Optimal Health” at the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey.
Kaplan asked the audience what role does nutrition play in their cancer journey. One man said that when he was going through treatment, his sense of taste changed, not to mention he had no appetite or desire to eat.
“I just wanted him to eat, and that was really frustrating to me,” his wife and primary caregiver said.
Another patient chimed in, “They don’t realize that there’s nothing else we want more than to eat. The best thing a caregiver can do is to figure out what they can eat.”
Cancer and its treatments can cause an array of side effects and symptoms that can make eating a challenge. Patients can experience nausea and vomiting as a result of their treatment, while certain chemotherapy regimens can cause food to have a metallic taste. Also, chewing and swallowing can become difficult or nearly impossible for someone with head and neck cancer.
When navigating a new food landscape, Kaplan mentioned that it is crucial for survivors – and their caregivers – to be patient with themselves.
“It’s important from a psychosocial point of view to set expectations when making any kind of change,” she said, emphasizing that many survivors and caregivers may feel guilty about their food behavior. Or, they may have a history of gastrointestinal issues or disordered eating prior to their cancer diagnosis.
“We bring to cancer a prior relationship with food. Body issues come up all the time, for both men and women,” Kaplan said. “These feelings are all pretty universal throughout the journey.”
Kaplan’s comments resonated with many members of the audience, including one man who shared, “I lost some muscle. I lift my arm up and just see skin hanging where it used to be pretty defined muscle. It’s depressing.”
Patients are not alone in feeling this way, and the good news is that there is help. Kaplan’s local chapter of the Cancer Support Community runs monthly nutrition seminars for patients and their loved ones, as well as frequent support groups to help patients overcome the emotional hurdle of eating during and after cancer. The Cancer Support Community is a national nonprofit, with locations all over the United States.
Most cancer centers also have registered dieticians on staff or are able to refer patients to receive such services. On their own, patients and caregivers can practice mindful eating – something Kaplan explained at the seminar using a small piece of chocolate.
After giving each person in the room a small piece of chocolate, Kaplan instructed everyone not to eat it, but to smell it and feel it. She then asked them to hold the piece of chocolate in their mouths, refraining from chewing. In doing so, she was encouraging participants to engage in mindfulness, focusing on being in the moment.
“It’s an awareness of the feelings,” Kaplan said. “You can take this mindfulness to every aspect of your life – especially with cancer.”