Advanced Stage Cancer and Nutrition

 

This post is part one of a two-part series on advanced stage cancer and nutrition.  I have two sides to my reason for writing this series of posts.  The one hand is my personal reflection on traditional medicine (with particular attention to oncology) and the (lack of) focus on nutrition, and the second side is to discuss the connection (and powerful tool) between diet and disease.

Part One:  For What (Nutrition) Is Worth

I am currently studying to become a nutritional therapist, so, I’m just going to go ahead and say this here and now:  There is simply too much confusion  — and a lack of guidance out there — to help people live their healthiest life possible.   The reason adding this certification to my collection is so important to me is,  I honestly feel there is a disconnect between the prevention and treatment of disease and nutrition.  Not just a disconnect, but a negligent disconnect.

There is simply too much confusion and a lack of guidance out there to help people live their healthiest life possible.

The purpose of this post is certainly not to derail, dismiss, or argue that oncologists are not medical professionals who face one of the worst diseases of all time because they certainly are amazing people.  I have an enormous amount of respect for doctors, believe me when I say this.   However, I had the first-hand experience with the issue I will be discussing today while my father was treated for his stage IV colon cancer in 2011.  I have reflected long and hard about what I am posting, so this is not something I just decided to discuss offhand.  I also know that I am not the only person who could recount a (similar if not identical) story about the subject I’m about to reference in my discussion.

Nutrition is such an intricate part of life in sickness and (good) health.

Stage IV cancer is terminal, and it is heartbreaking to hear that diagnosis.  When my father was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer in February 2011, the two options his oncologist had for him were as follows:  Chemotherapy with a life expectancy of 12-36 months, or do nothing and live six months.  My father chose to fight and underwent an aggressive form of chemotherapy.

My father’s drug combinations included substances that would make him unable to breathe in cold weather and unable to drink liquids colder than room temperature.   Drugs that caused him chronic nausea and fatigue.  Drugs that caused him skin lesions, hair loss, and chronic rashes.  Drugs that ultimately corroded his liver and ended his life eight months to the day of his prognosis.  During my father’s treatment, he was in the hospital between 20-30 times for treatment, regular appointments, and surgeries.  He saw his oncologist and the oncology nurses regularly, but he was only referred to speak to an oncology nutritionist once in 8 months.  

I would accompany my father to his appointments, and more than once his oncologist dismissed my comments about types of foods we were encouraging my dad to eat, including getting him a juicer.  In fact, her response to our buying a juicer was this, “at this point if he wants to eat McDonald’s and he’s eating, just let him have what he wants.”

I was floored by such an answer.

Really, Doc?  McDonald’s?

Yes, that’s what she said.  What this comment told me was, “the end is near, so let him eat whatever he wants.” — which was not only a dismissive, but very upsetting (not to mention, frustrating) message to hear.

Now, I’m not suggesting that juicing was ever going to cure my father’s advanced stage cancer, but what I am saying, outright, is that every person — regardless of their current health profile –should be encouraged by their healthcare provider to eat a balanced and healing diet.

I’m also not suggesting that all specialists should be required to obtain a degree in nutrition, or that this is what your doctor would say to you.  However, going back to my frustration with the comment made by my father’s oncologist, how could she be so blatantly dismissive about what my dad was eating?  It was ignorant, in my opinion.  Maybe that was it, ignorance, but even if my father’s oncologist was not in the position to comment on his nutrition, surely she knew that — regardless of his current health — eating processed food would not be the best choice for him.  Period. Why be dismissive about nutrition — for any reason — at any stage of life?  

Practitioners and Nutrition Education

The National Academy of Sciences sets a guideline minimum of 25 hours of nutrition education for medical school students.   However, findings from the Nutrition in Medicine Project at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, conducted from 2008-2009 show that this requirement is often not met.

A total of 105 schools completed the portion of the survey regarding the number of nutrition contact hours. According to these responses, U.S. medical schools provided an average of 19.6 hours of required nutrition teaching (range: 0–70 contact hours). Only 27% (28/105) of U.S. medical schools responding to this question indicated that they provided the minimum of 25 hours recommended by the National Academy of Sciences in 1985.3 Thirty medical schools (29%) reported requiring 12 or fewer hours of nutrition instruction (Figure 1). Most of these contact hours took place during the first two years of medical training when students received an average (standard error of the mean [SEM]) of 15.4 (1.0) hours of required nutrition instruction. The third and fourth years provided an average (SEM) of only 4.2 (0.6) additional hours.

– Nutrition in Medicine Project at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Of course, some specialists are educated specifically in nutrition and, yes, they would be better to consult with for matters specifically concerning diet.  I also know you wouldn’t go to a chiropractor for a heart condition any quicker than you would go to a gastroenterologist for a back problem.  However, despite my father’s disease, I never heard any real advice or encouragement about the power (or possibility) of nutrition as a way to heal or comfort him from any medical professional.

Again, this account is based on the experiences I (closely) watched my father have, but I can’t help but feel, when it comes to advanced cancer (or any condition, for that matter), it is a common attitude often to “throw in the towel” on nutrition. 

If so, this is an attitude in need of serious reconsideration.  

Stay tuned for Part 2 next week!

Further information on medical school and nutrition education: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/16/health/16chen.html?_r=0

http://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/2/1/e000417.full

Information on the Nutrition in Medicine Project: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4042309/

 

Do you think nutrition is not emphasized enough both in prevention and treatment of diseases?

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Comments

  1. June 1, 2015 / 11:26 am

    I wholeheartedly agree Erin! There is definitely a need to incorporate more nutritional elements into the work of specialists. I feel that nutrion is a fairly new aspect in traditional medicine and that there has been a too strict focus on medicine and drugs. Your father’s experience is heart breaking. Myself I have experienced cancer diagnosis and even though it doesn’t compare at all, never was I ever given any nutritional advice nor any recommendations to adopt on the future. We need more nutritional therapists! 😉

    • June 1, 2015 / 12:01 pm

      I hope you’re okay! I must admit, I was ignorant myself to everything (and I learn more and more every day) but I haven’t ever been able to shake that day at the doctor’s office with my father. I don’t know if anything would have helped for sure, but it can never really hurt to try and to keep hope. I just feel like what I’m learning is so beneficial to everyone, no matter what their current health is. I just hope that I will be able to help others, and I specifically want to help people challenged by chronic conditions, even if it just helps them have more energy or feel more comfortable. I feel like I’ve just been bitten by the nutritional therapy bug and I just want to learn more and more! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Elsie! 🙂

  2. June 1, 2015 / 12:28 pm

    100% behind you here Erin in that good nutrition and a good healthy diet are essential to help prevent serious illness. I’m so sorry for the loss of your father in such a terrible way too.

    • June 1, 2015 / 12:47 pm

      Thank you, Neil. It is so important at all times. You’ve got it covered will all your healthy meals! ;). It’s great that our blogging community share so many great food and exercise ideas and info. I don’t know how I functioned (or knew what to make for dinner) before I discovered blogging!!

  3. June 1, 2015 / 1:32 pm

    Your personal connection to this issue will help you to be a compassionate advocate for folks dealing with a devastating diagnosis or like you said who just want to feel better. Too often I think our society operates in extremes. It’s like you have to choose between holistic therapies or drugs. Why can’t there be a middle ground where both ‘sides’ work together to achieve an optimal result? Good luck to you in your studies and thank you for sharing your story!

    • June 1, 2015 / 1:46 pm

      Thank you, Keli. I agree there is an extreme spectrum and not enough middle ground. I think that is a big reason for people being confused or overwhelmed by it all. Sure there’s a lot of factors which can determine our health and how we respond to illness, but one thing we can control is the foods we eat. Thanks for reading!

  4. June 1, 2015 / 2:57 pm

    This reminds me of a book I read a few years ago when my dad got diagnosed with colo-rectal cancer: Crazy Sexy Cancer by Kris Carr. That’s when I did an all raw food diet for an entire month (100% raw). It was an incredible experience. I also had cervical dysplasia (pre-cancer) and had to get that treated a few times, and skin cancer burned off on my nose (that was humbling). I probably eat fast food once a year but I still eat a lot of junk food…I just make a point of getting down the green smoothies and as many veggies as I can stomach. I plan on driving everyone around me crazy for at least another 37 years.

    • June 1, 2015 / 3:19 pm

      That’s the type of cancer my father had, but his was a rare location. I have also struggled with cervical dysplasia (so frustrating)! I love Kris Carr — she is somebody I have been thinking about often as I make my way through this program. Her story and her advocacy continue to educate and help so many people. It’s hard to never want to enjoy wine or sweets, and I don’t believe that’s how we should all live either. However, the more I have examined my diet these past few weeks I have been trying to clean up my act! I know that the times I have had a cleaner diet, I have appreciated food much more and craved healthier things. It is all about balance as we all say! It’s all we can do!

      • June 2, 2015 / 4:56 am

        Yep. And I may or may not be on my third glass of wine right now, and yes, it’s Monday. Because I had a green smoothie and a salad already today and it’s all about balance, right? I do all the responsible things, the mature things. I sound like a frigging counselor 99% of the time but sometimes I just need to get the idiot out. Like, I love you. Let’s hug, and drink. And pet kittens, and watch 21 Jumpstreet and laugh until we nearly pee our pants. Let’s show our boobs to a passing train and pee in the bushes. And then we’ll drink our green smoothies and eat our cabbage salads. <3

        • June 2, 2015 / 10:53 am

          Well, as long as there’s cabbage salad involved lol!

  5. June 1, 2015 / 7:38 pm

    I also thought about Kris when I read this. I can’t believe that that doctor would say that, but on the other hand I can. I hope people start realizing how important nutrition is to our overall health and how much it can help us.

    • June 1, 2015 / 8:48 pm

      I hope so too. I know in the case of my father’s doctor she probably thought, well he’s going to die anyway so let him eat what he wants, but I still don’t think that’s right. I think the second a doctor starts saying that sort of thing it’s like telling the patient to give up. It’s shameful to be honest! Thanks for reading, Erin.

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