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Patients Turn to Nutrition to Help in War on Cancer

Copyright 2002 The Oklahoman

Patients Turn to Nutrition to Help in War on Cancer

A new battlefront is emerging in the war on cancer, and patients are leading the charge.

While doctors focus on chemotherapy and radiation, more patients are turning to nutrition as a supplemental weapon, a way to seize control and fight back.

They want nutritional information that will help them ward off weight loss, improve quality of life and give them the strength they need to beat the disease.

Patients´ attitudes are changing, said Mary Knutson, registered nurse at Cancer Care Associates in north Oklahoma City. They´re no longer satisfied with just taking orders from doctors.

”They want to be involved,” she said.

Karen Baker, a fifth-grade teacher from Edmond, said stress and a poor diet may have contributed to her breast cancer diagnosis in June.

Not long after doctors found her cancer, Baker consulted with a dietitian. It was something she said she owed herself.

”I took it upon myself. No one told me to do it, but my doctors were elated,” Baker, 51, said.

Prior to radiation, Oklahoma City registered dietitian Carol Banister gave Baker tips on what to eat and how much, as well as advice about rest and exercise.

It was a tremendous help, said Baker, who completed her treatments last fall and is sticking with her diet and exercise regimen to guard against recurrence.

Banister, president of Banister and Associates Nutrition Consulting and Management, has seen a recent surge in cancer patients.

She said nutrition is one of the ways they can actively fight back.

”All their control and direction has been ripped away from them, so they want something they can hold on to,” she said. ”They want to feel empowered, and that´s important.”

Banister is among a small number of registered dietitians taking special interest in cancer patients.

”They want accurate and reliable information about how they should be taking care of their health and what they should be eating,” Banister said.

She compares cancer to diabetes and heart disease. All three have a nutritional component.

The relationship is more clear cut with diabetes, and the benefits are unmistakable with heart disease.

With cancer, there are no absolutes, but medical researchers have established that some foods can reduce the risk of cancer and nutrition can help patients survive once they get it.

”I look at nutrition as a powerful ally in your fight against cancer, and you can´t afford to overlook it,” Banister said.

Kitty Mathis-Shildt, a registered dietitian at Cancer Care Associates in Tulsa, said nutrition won´t cure cancer, but it can help patients fight it.

It´s an important tool for keeping the patient´s immune system strong and for helping the body withstand chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

All kinds of research has emerged within the past decade that suggests proper nutrition improves outcomes and lowers treatment costs.

Mathis-Shildt, who spends about 15 hours a week working with cancer patients, stresses high calories, high protein and lots of fluids.

”Generally, it´s just plenty of calories,” she said.

She also considers patients´ medical histories, such as previous surgery or conditions such as diabetes or heart disease. The type of cancer a patient has may also call for specific recommendations.

She advises women with breast cancer to stay away from soy products, because current research indicates it could influence a tumor´s growth.

But generally, she instructs patients to stick with their normal diets, while adding extra protein, fat and carbohydrates. The objective is to keep the patient´s weight up, fuel the immune system and give the body nutrients it needs to repair damaged cells.

If the diet isn´t sufficient, the body will feed off itself, drawing protein from existing muscle tissue and feeding it to the immune system.

An oncology nurse for 15 years, Knutson has been talking with patients about nutrition for only the past few years.

”I teach patients in a very simple way,” Knutson said.

”Your car has to have fuel to go,” she said. ”You have to have carbohydrates.”

A lot of patients don´t know about carbohydrates and proteins and why they´re important.

Medical advances in controlling debilitating side effects are part of the reason patients have become so interested and receptive to nutritional advice.

She remembers when patients were so sick with nausea and vomiting that it was futile to talk to them about nutrition.

Now, patients are feeling better. They´re more willing to eat, and they´re more interested in what they can do to help fight their disease, Knutson said.

Content copyrighted, 2002 The Oklahoman

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