One of the major problems associated with mesothelioma is malnutrition, meaning that the body is not getting enough of the vital nutrients it needs to function, combat disease or manage treatments. There are three main reasons why malnutrition may occur:1
- The mesothelioma itself can alter the body’s appetite and/or the way it absorbs nutrients and utilizes them.
- The tumor itself creates nutrient absorption problems
- Treatments for mesothelioma can create side effects like nausea, loss of appetite, troubles swallowing, diarrhea, constipation, or psychological problems. All of these can lead to malnutrition through reduced food intake, nutrient absorption or nutrient use.
In addition, there may be psychological stress that impacts food intake. According to the National Cancer Institute, approximately 80% of cancer patients will become malnourished, while 20-40% of cancer patients will develop a condition related to malnutrition – not the actual cancer. Malnutrition can lead to a poorly functioning immune system precisely at the time you need your immune response to be functioning as well as possible.
Why Malnutrition is a Concern for Mesothelioma Patients
Adequate nutrition is crucial for all people. However, getting enough nutrients becomes even more important for people who are battling mesothelioma. Without enough nutrients, the body will not be able to fight off the cancer as well, will have difficulties coping with symptoms, and may not be as susceptible to treatments. In fact, the body’s responses to chemotherapy may be reduced and fatigue is increased.
Malnutrition may lead to a condition called cachexia in which the body wastes away. Not only does the body lose fat, but also muscle and bone mass. Malnutrition can also lead to anemia and other health problems.
A lack of nutrients is needed to help the body’s healthy cells stay healthy during cancer treatments. Systemic treatments like chemotherapy place particular nutritional requirements on the body because the drugs invade both normal and cancerous cells. Proper nutrition builds defenses at the cell level and encourages more rapid recovery from surgery, radiotherapy or chemotherapy.2
How to Avoid Malnutrition with Mesothelioma
Traditionally, the advice for cancer patients about how to avoid malnutrition is to eat whatever they want. The logic behind this advice is that some cancer patients only have appetites for certain types of foods and it is best to get any sort of food – even if unhealthy – than no food at all. However, some nutrition experts disagree with this advice. They say that eating an unhealthy diet high in saturated fats, sugars and starches can actually worsen cancer symptoms by causing inflammation. Inflammation then further reduces appetite.
Patients with mesothelioma are encouraged to eat foods which contain phytochemicals – natural chemicals found in many fruits and vegetables which reduce inflammation. It is also important for them to have high intake of “healthy” fats like Omega 3s. Unhealthy saturated and trans fats such as those found in dairy and red meat should be avoided. Simple carbohydrates should also be exchanged for complex carbohydrates like whole grains.
Consciously choosing to change one’s diet is not easy when battling mesothelioma. The disease and its treatments can cause many changes to patients’ metabolisms, appetites and even change which foods they enjoy. Patients should not try to stick to their previous eating patterns. For example, if a patient used to eat a large breakfast but now primarily feels nausea in the morning, then the eating pattern can be adjusted to exclude breakfast and eat a larger lunch.
One of the most important aspects to avoiding malnutrition is adequate hydration. If the body becomes dehydrated – such as through diarrhea or vomiting – then it can actually worsen these side effects and also cause constipation. If patients have difficulties swallowing from mesothelioma, then they can suck on fruit-juice popsicles or ice cubes.
Enlisting Help for Combating Mesothelioma Malnutrition
Ideally, patients should begin combating malnutrition before it begins. When diagnosed with mesothelioma, patients should seek out a nutritionist or dietician who has experience working with cancer patients and their distinct needs. Doctors should be able to recommend an oncology dietician or naturopathic clinician to provide individualized advice about nutrition with mesothelioma. The nutrition specialist should be consulted throughout the progress of the disease and treatment as the needs of the patient are likely to change.
One thing to look out for is the fact that treatments may make you feel so fatigued that you don’t want to cook or make an effort to eat. Disease and disease treatments can also make food taste differently.3
Patients should also enlist the help of their family or friends for nutritional support. It is important that these people are aware of the risk of malnutrition and that mesothelioma can greatly affect eating habits. Family members should be prepared to adjust their own diets and eating schedules if necessary in order to support the mesothelioma patient.
1 Cutsem, Eric Van, Jann Arends, The causes and consequences of cancer-associated malnutrition, European Journal of Oncology Nursing, Volume 9, Supplement 2, 2005, Pages S51-S63.
2 Hiqashiquchi, T. Cancer patient therapy and nutritional support (Aug 2011) Gan to Kaqaku Ryoho, v38:8, 1235-1240.
3 Diet problems caused by treatment (Sept 2010) Retrieved from Cancer Research UK – CancerHelp UK at: http://cancerhelp.cancerresearchuk.org/coping-with-cancer/coping-physically/diet/about/cause/diet-problems-