Special to MSNBC
updated 6/10/2005 12:19:15 PM ET 2005-06-10T16:19:15

Good nutrition is a highly important part of cancer prevention. It can also influence the survival and the quality of life of people who have been diagnosed with cancer.

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Although general dietary information is sometimes enough to help cancer patients eat more healthfully, personal dietary counseling can make a major difference in helping people apply nutrition knowledge to their lifestyle, food preferences, medical condition and family situation.

A recent study shows the usefulness of personal dietary counseling.

Radiation therapy for colon cancer often causes undesirable weight loss and side effects such as diarrhea and nausea. In this recent study, researchers selected 111 patients with colorectal cancer who were to be given radiation therapy.

One group was allowed to eat what they desired without any guidance. Another group was prescribed a nutrient dense, high-protein liquid supplement. If the supplement was taken twice a day as the patients were instructed, 400 calories and 40 grams of protein would be added to their diet. A third group was provided with individual nutrition counseling on how to use regular foods to meet their nutrient needs in a way that satisfied their personal food preferences and counteracted any side effects of their treatment.

When the radiation therapy ended, the calorie intake of those patients receiving no help had fallen by 285 calories per day. Those patients who took the supplement increased their intake by 296 calories per day. And those receiving individual counseling had increased their calorie intake by 555 calories per day.

Three months later, those who received personal dietary counseling maintained their calorie intake, while the intake of the other two groups had declined to their initial calorie levels.

The group that received no nutritional help, however, had the highest rates of side effects such as loss of appetite, nausea and diarrhea, directly after radiation therapy and three months later. The nutritional status of almost all of these patients had deteriorated since diagnosis. In comparison, about half of the group who took the supplement were able to maintain their nutritional status. Yet 90 percent of those who received individual counseling maintained their nutritional status and suffered the least amount of side effects, weight loss and muscle loss.

Improving breast cancer survival
Individual dietary counseling is also able to help cancer patients reduce their weight and the chance of weight gain.

For example, excess weight and weight gain both appear linked with poorer survival rates for women diagnosed with breast cancer. A new study that followed over 5,000 women from the Nurses’ Health Study for about nine years shows that among never-smokers, those more overweight before diagnosis of breast cancer had greater odds of cancer recurrence and death than normal weight never-smokers.

Among never-smokers who were normal weight at the time of diagnosis, those who gained about six pounds faced a 35 percent increased risk of death due to breast cancer, compared to women who maintained their weight. Those who gained about 17 pounds faced a 64 percent increased risk of death.

A small pilot study has found that dietary guidance, along with an exercise program, is able to help breast cancer survivors receiving adjuvant chemotherapy to lose modest amounts of weight. Larger studies are now in progress evaluating other possible forms of dietary support, including cooking classes and personal counseling by telephone.

As research continues to show the impact that sound eating habits can have on the survival and quality of life of cancer patients during and after cancer treatment, it is apparent that individualized care can make a difference.

To find a registered dietitian with expertise in cancer care, cancer patients can ask their physician for a referral, or use the American Dietetic Association Web site to locate one in their area.

Nutrition Notes is provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research  in Washington, D.C.© 2005 MSNBC Interactive

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