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Nutrition’s role in cervical cancer care and treatment

A bowl of food on a table

With January being Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, the Dietitians at the Georgia Cancer Center wanted to take time to discuss nutrition and cervical cancer, along with all other gynecological cancers. When looking into cancer prevention and survivorship in general, diet and exercise often come up. It is true several cancer types are linked to excessive weight and physical inactivity, including uterine and ovarian cancers. General healthy eating, such as a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, and routine exercise can help reduce these risks.

Yet not all cancers can have their risk reduced by lifestyle changes. Cervical cancer is an example of a type of cancer with no link to diet, weight, or inactivity. However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for a dietitian in your treatment team if you are diagnosed with cervical cancer – or any of the gynecological cancers. In fact, chemotherapy, radiation, and even surgical side effects often play a direct role in a patient’s nutrition throughout their treatment course. Let’s discuss how to achieve healthy nutrition throughout treatment, specifically for those getting treated for Gynecological Cancers.

Different chemotherapy regimens can have an elevated risk of nausea and vomiting as a side effect. Although your doctor will work to have anti-nausea medications prescribed for you to help combat this, what you choose to eat – and not eat – can make this worse or better. When not feeling well, it’s common to try to avoid eating all together. This can set up your stomach to get upset when you finally do eat because the stomach acids are just building and waiting to react. It is better to eat smaller amounts every 1-2 hours when having intense nausea to help settle your stomach, even if it’s just a few crackers or spoonful of something light. When mild nausea is present, choose foods that are bland and simple – you want to avoid fried/fatty foods, spicy foods, acidic foods, and foods loaded with added sugar. All these types of food are more likely to upset your stomach further. A scrambled egg with toast, Greek yogurt with fruit, and baked chicken with rice are all examples of something light that could be tolerated well. Sipping on liquids in between can also help calm your stomach.

Bowel changes are also a common issue to come up. Often these issues result from medications, requiring some management from your physician or your nurse navigator to recommend over-the-counter assistance. One area of concern is patients having constipation while needing to use pain medication. Pain medicine is notorious for slowing the bowels down so if you ever find the need for routine pain management, a daily stool softener is recommended, along with making sure to meet your estimated fluid intake goals. Substituting whole grains in place of white/more processed grains, increasing your fruit and vegetable intake, and increasing your body movement – even just walking more may all assist with promoting bowel regularity. On the flip side, if diarrhea is a concern, limiting the foods already mentioned for nausea can help. It’s also important to stay hydrated, though you may find that staying away from dairy based beverages will help settle your bowels down a little faster. Stick to sips of juice, broth, water and electrolyte replacement drinks or dairy substitutes like almond, soy, or oat milk.

When facing a poor appetite, it’s important to plan your day and stick to that plan as close as you can every day. This means setting times for when you’re going to try to eat, even if not that hungry. Small portions like a cup of soup or half a sandwich can also make things more manageable. This means you will need to eat more often, however, to meet your needs. Try setting 5-6 times per day that you will at least attempt to eat something. By being consistent with when you eat, your body is more likely to want to keep to that pattern and help your appetite to start to come back. Try to have protein-based food each time, whether it is meat, dairy, eggs, beans, nuts, or another protein substitute. This is because if you’re not eating well, you are likely losing some weight, specifically muscle tone.

While there are other concerns that can come up with patients during treatment, these tend to be the most common. If you are experiencing these and/or more issues and would like further guidance, please ask your nurse navigator or physician to send a referral to the dietitians. We would be happy to guide you to something more personalized to your situation. Remember, even though diet has no direct link to causing cervical cancer, your overall nutrition can impact your wellbeing and survivorship. To maximize the benefits of nutrition, it is best to talk to an expert, and that’s what we’re here for.

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Augusta University Health