Diet matters during cancer treatment

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Eating a meal is one of the last things a cancer patient wants to do after a chemotherapy session, but a clinical dietitian at Mercy Health – Youngstown stresses the importance of a healthy diet’s role in battling the disease.

“There’s a lot of nutrition counseling involved in certain chemotherapy regimens because of their different side effects and interactions,” said Kayla Aluise, oncology nutritionist, Mercy Health – Youngstown. “We help develop nutrition guidelines and diets for patients that have already been diagnosed with cancer.”

One of the biggest rules that Aluise preaches to cancer patients is safe food eating during chemotherapy, due to the body’s immune system being suppressed.

“It’s all about an adjusted neutropenic diet,” Aluise said. “This means cooking all your foods thoroughly, not eating at buffets or salad bars, and making sure safe food handling procedures are in place.”

Food recalls are also important to keep an eye out for.

“Patients cannot afford to get a food borne illness while they’re going through treatment,” Aluise said. “It could send them to the hospital and there’s a high risk for that because of their immune system.”

The type of cancer diagnosis goes a long way in determining the diet that needs to be implemented for a patient. Different chemotherapy drugs result in different side effects, and each one leads to specific diet plans that a patient should follow.

Some side effects, such as nausea, aversions to certain foods, gastrointestinal issues and loss of appetite, can also affect a patient’s diet.

“One of our main goals is to help the patient and their family work through these issues and adjust their meals, which may be related to portion size or flavoring, so the patient can tolerate it better.”

If a patient is diagnosed with a curable cancer, Aluise stresses the importance of following a plant-based diet after their chemotherapy treatments are finished, which research has proven to be the best approach to decreasing the risk of cancer.

This plan aims for ultimate health by focusing on choosing whole foods grown from the ground, and limiting processed, refined and bleached food items. The main component of this diet is fiber, which offers a boost to preventing cancer.

“High intakes of dietary fiber have shown to decrease the risk for colon cancer and some breast cancers, so it’s a big deal to adapt to this.”

Cancer or not, anyone can experience its many benefits, Aluise added.

“What we tell patients for a plant-based diet should really be for everybody,” she said. “With the rate of some cancers increasing, it’s important for everyone to work more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes into their diet. The more you can work these in, the better off you will be.”

All three Mahoning Valley acute care centers – St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital, St. Elizabeth Boardman Hospital and St. Joseph Hospital in Warren – offer oncology nutritional services, along with inpatient dietitians and nutrition education.

A referral is needed from a primary care physician or oncologist for these services. For those who are interested in meeting with a dietician without a referral, some insurances will cover a wellness visit once or twice a year.

For more information on Mercy’s highly coordinated, high-quality cancer care, visit

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