For many cancer patients, maintaining a healthy diet and weight can be difficult due to the side effects of treatment and the disease itself. But during the treatment and recovery, it’s never more important. Area doctors and nutritionists recommend patients maintain a balanced diet with plenty of calories and protein as a way to keep up your energy and strength throughout the treatment process.

“The role of nutrition during cancer treatment is to help maintain weight, energy, and strength to stay on course with your treatment plan,” Victoria Lee, a clinical dietitian at MD Anderson Cancer Center, said. “Your diet can help mitigate certain side effects which may interfere with these goals. For many breast cancer patients, achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight can be a challenge during and after cancer treatment due to hormone or steroid treatments.”

Lee said the overall nutritional needs can vary based on the patient’s age, gender and activity level, among others. Some forms of chemotherapy can also lead to specific nutrient deficiencies as a side effect, she said.

Stephanie Seekamp, a dietitian with Wilson N. Jones Regional Medical Center, said different forms of cancer can have different effects on the way your body absorbs and processes nutrients. For example, gastrointestinal cancers can have a major impact on the way the body takes in important nutrients.

In addition to the cancer itself, which can increase your metabolism, Seekamp said treatment can also affect the body’s ability to take in nutrition.

Treatments include chemotherapy and radiation target quickly-growing cells like those in cancer and affects cells that naturally divide quickly, including those in the digestive tract, Lee said. Depending on the location, radiation therapy can also burn areas of the body, including the esophagus, making it painful to eat and swallow food, Seekamp said.

“Unfortunately, the treatment doesn’t just kill the cancer, it affects everything else with it,” she said.

Other side effects can also make it difficult to eat and keep down food, Seekamp said. Radiation can cause nausea and vomiting, and patients have reported that treatment has made food taste differently, she said.

Seekamp said the primary goal is to keep up a patient’s strength. In order to do this Seekamp said nutritionists usually recommend a well-rounded, high-calorie diet that includes plenty of protein.

Throughout treatment, the body will begin to break down cells to meet its nutritional needs. While this is primarily fats, Seekamp said protein can help protect the body’s muscle mass from being lost as well.

“One of the major roles is to ensure that the body is not breaking down other things during treatment,” she said. “We try not to take food away from people during treatment because cancer is a disease where, more likely than not, they are not getting enough nutrition.”

Seekamp said oatmeal is an easy meal that is easy for the body to process but is also nutrient and calorie dense. Nuts, legumes and lean meats can also help a patient keep protein in their system.

”Starchy foods such as crackers, pretzels, plain pasta, and oatmeal can be easier to keep down and help soothe an unsettled stomach,” Lee said. “Adequate fluid intake is also really important. Try thin liquids such as ginger tea or ginger ale, broths, coconut water or sports drinks for electrolyte replenishment.”

Seekamp said there have been some studies that link soy to the development of cancers, specifically breast cancers, due to its similarity to estrogen hormones, but said that the results have not been conclusive. She added that a patient likely would need to consume well above the average amount of soy daily, for years, for it to have a large impact.