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Gastrointestinal Cancer and Nutritional Health

A healthy functioning GI tract is critical for maintaining weight and absorbing nutrients.  In this post, we discuss the what is necessary to maintain good nutritional health while fighting gastrointestinal cancers.

Gastrointestinal (GI) cancer refers to cancers located anywhere within the body’s digestive system. From the esophagus to the rectum, this internal tract includes organs such as the gallbladder, liver, pancreas, stomach, and small and large intestines.

Since GI cancer incorporates such a broad range of locations and symptoms (many of which are difficult to detect due lack of screening tests and vague symptoms), treatment varies immensely. Once a patient’s GI cancer is identified, the following factors are weighed when considering a plan moving forward: the type of cancer, the stage of cancer’s development, and overall condition of the patient. Treatment itself often includes surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

Collectively, GI cancer continues to be one of the most common forms of cancer today. However, given the increase of available research and improvements around technology, the medical field’s overall emphasis has evolved from sole surgical solutions towards a more holistic and wellness-minded focus. Meaning, while surgery and chemotherapy are still incorporated into necessary treatment plans, “cancer survivorship” (the mind-body balance and overall health of a patient) is now more so than ever our priority.

Cancer often causes weight loss and malnutrition due to an inability to eat. Chemotherapy increases loss of appetite, as it changes the taste of food and destroys the lining of the intestine (resulting in nausea and vomiting). Radiation also causes short and long-term inflammation of the tumor and adjacent organs, resulting in weight loss and malnutrition. Due to this, maintaining a focus on nutrition during diagnosis and treatment of GI cancer is vital. A patient should be up-front about any concerns, so that the physician and nutritionist can work together to manage these issues.

Again, as everyone’s diagnosis varies accordingly, proper insight should be sought from already-involved medical professionals (and/or the assistance of an on-hand dietician). Side effects from either the cancer or treatment can be severe, and have harsh impacts on the body.

The following list offers tips for reducing discomfort, and maintaining necessary nutritional health during treatment and recovery:

Weight loss

Weight loss is extremely common, especially among patients with stomach cancer. Whether tumors themselves are causing a blockage, or part of the GI tract has been removed due to surgery, eating and/or maintaining an appetite can be difficult. Large meals may be impossible, proper digestion may be hindered, and dumping syndrome—a condition that causes food or liquid to move through the stomach and small intestine too fast—might also be an issue.

To maintain proper weight, consider the following:

  • Eat regularly. Don’t skip meals, even if only a couple of bites are possible.
  • Push the protein. Choose items packed with calories, add cream to liquids and extra butter to prepared sauces, etc.
  • If eating solid foods isn’t an option, drink your meal. Protein shakes, smoothies, pudding and yogurt all act as easier-to-digest items.
  • Have protein-packed, easy-to-eat snacks around all the time, in anticipation of any surprise bout of hunger.

Feeling full

 Often after surgery, patients of GI cancer feel full after a small bite of food. While this usually improves alongside the body’s natural recovery, continuing to eat is important. To avoid discomfort, consider the following:

  • Break up the usual “3 meals per day” into six or more. Eat smaller, snack-like amounts, but more frequently.
  • Avoid fluids during meals, especially carbonated drinks, which have a filling effect.
  • Replace high-fiber items with protein-rich selections instead. I.E. skip bread, grains, and cereals if possible.

Vitamin depletion

With hindered digestive abilities, the body may struggle to absorb enough vitamins and minerals. An available health care team and/or nutritionist can offer support and resources during this time. However, keep the following supplements in mind:

  • Iron offers a much-needed boost to red blood cells in-the-making, and ensures a patient on the rebound doesn’t suffer from anemia. Iron can be found in green, leafy veggies, liver, fish, and additional supplements.
  • Vitamin B12 also plays a part with red blood cells—as well as aids the nervous and digestive systems overall. Patients who have just had surgery may be given B12 via injection or oral supplement, to prevent anemia.
  • Calcium is a mineral vital for bone repair and teeth strengthening. Post GI-cancer surgery, calcium absorption levels can plummet, leading to osteoporosis.
  • Folate is used for making red blood cells, and depleted levels can lead to anemia. A drop in folate may be caused by the changes in the structure of the stomach or intestines, following surgery.

For additional information, check out the following links.

GI Cancer and Maintaining the Necessary Nutritional Health
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