Patient, nutritionist agree: Healthy eating, balanced diet important during cancer treatments

Eating healthy — and constantly — can help people going through cancer treatments, a Carroll Hospital oncologist nutritionist says.

Rhonda Andrews was diagnosed with breast cancer on March 19. She has been through 16 weeks of chemotherapy. She will need to have a mastectomy and five weeks of radiation.

“The support of my family and friends have been helping get through this,” Andrews said.

Andrews also works at Carroll Hospital, in the cancer center where she got her treatments. Having the support from her coworkers helped her when she was feeling down.

Andrews lost her appetite and barely ate during her cancer treatments.

Carroll Hospital oncology dietitian Mindy Athas is a certified specialist in oncology nutrition, of which there are only 15 in the state.

Athas wants clients to maintain their nutrition and hydration during treatment.

“When I did have an appetite, I just ate whatever I wanted at that time,” Andrews said.

Cancer survivor Rhonda Andrews, who works as a scheduler at Carroll Hospital and dietitian Mindy Athas at the William E. Kahlert Cancer Center in Westminster Thursday, October 1, 2020.
Cancer survivor Rhonda Andrews, who works as a scheduler at Carroll Hospital and dietitian Mindy Athas at the William E. Kahlert Cancer Center in Westminster Thursday, October 1, 2020. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

Andrews said chemotherapy made her taste buds change and nothing tasted good to her. Sometimes when Andrews was able to eat, she wasn’t able to keep it down.

Athas said it is common to have problems with taste, mouth sores, nausea and vomiting.

“The side effects of treatment can impact your nutrition and your ability to eat and tolerate your diet,” Athas said.

Athas, who also suggests regular physical activity alongside a healthy a diet during and after treatment, recommends to clients The New American Plate from the American Institute for Cancer Research. The plate includes a 3-ounce serving of meat (fish, poultry or red meat), two kinds of vegetables and a serving of whole grain ( brown rice, barley, kasha, bulgur, millet and quinoa).

“I recommend that plate for everybody undergoing cancer treatment or is a survivor because it is a very scientific supported diet that is high in plants and is more like a Mediterranean diet and is much lower in red meat,” Athas said.

Andrews had to take anti-nausea medicine almost everyday to be able to keep food down. She did end up losing a lot of weight due to not eating.

When Athas has clients that can’t eat, she tries to build on whatever their body is already tolerating. So if the client is only eating applesauce, can they add fruit? Or nuts? Or a cracker? she said. Athas also tries to increase the frequency if they are only eating once a day, she wants them to eat three.

“Smaller more frequent meals tend to improve tolerance of eating, sort of how little kids eat, we want to eat more like them. Eat a little, run around, then nap,” Athas said.

Athas believes the pandemic has made people cook food at home rather than dining out as often.

Once Andrews was able to eat, she often had soups, chicken with rice, toast and crackers.

Andrews was suggested to stay hydrated with juices and water, also eat lots of fruits and vegetables. She now has her appetite back, but feels like she could always eat better.

“Just having an appetite back definitely keeps my strength up,” Andrews said.

The process of going through treatments during a pandemic has been stressful for Andrews.

“I have not been able to have any family with me during my treatments since day one or any of my doctor appointments,” Andrews said. “Not having family for my first day of treatments was very upsetting, but they was there for me to ring the bell when I finished my treatments.”

Andrews was able to ring the bell on Sept. 4 and that felt like a “light at the end of the tunnel,” she said.