A breast cancer diagnosis opened Melinda Smith’s eyes to the value of good nutrition.
Before that news in 2001, “I ate a lot of sugar,” said the Dahlonega woman, an intensive care nurse at Northeast Georgia Medical Center Gainesville. “I had a boss … who would bring us all kinds of treats, and I gained weight. I weighed more than I ever had before.”
The disease launched her into a healthy lifestyle, first with improving her diet and nutrition, then later fitness and exercise.
“I took the path that would get me back to work as soon as possible,” said Smith, 49. “I realized during that time I need to start focusing on my health. I don’t like vegetables, per se. To get spinach and some other, healthier things in my diet every day, I would (mix them together in) shakes.
“I still do them. As time has gone along, I’ve added more things to them.”
Generally, as a preventive measure, people should follow “diets that are low in saturated fats, limiting consumption of red meats and eating a high-fiber diet and relatively low carbohydrates,” said Dr. Andrew Johnson, medical oncologist and hematologist at Longstreet Clinic Cancer Center in Gainesville.
Fried foods may be tasty, but they’re generally not healthy. Outdoor grilling also should be done in moderation, as there are carcinogens – or cancer-causing agents -- in smoked meats, Johnson said.
Elizabeth Battle, a registered dietitian, board-certified in oncology nutrition with Northside Hospital in Cumming, said studies have shown recommending a plant-based diet in dealing with or preventing cancer.
“That’s not necessarily vegetarian,” she said. “It’s just getting more vegetables and fruit in your diet, plus whole grains.”
Legumes, such as beans and peas, “are really important because they reduce inflammation in your body,” Battle said. “And really put a limit on your red meat – beef, pork and lamb -- of 12 to 18 ounces per week.”
“What we tell our patients and anyone we talk with is to try to stay on the outside perimeter of the grocery story,” she said, noting that more processed, or chemically preserved foods, are on interior shelves.
And people should look at labels on foods.
“If you can identify everything that’s on that label – there's not something weird that you don’t understand, that doesn’t have a lot of chemicals – then those are going to be healthy products,” Battle said. “They’re a little more expensive, but it’s worth it for your health in the end.”
“I work with mainly on referrals or patients who are at risk while they’re receiving radiation, such as those who are getting treated in an area that … affect how they are able to eat,” she said.
Patients may experience problems chewing or swallowing or may have appetite loss during treatment.
“I usually work with all the patients with head and neck cancer, as well the abdominal region,” Skousen said.
Generally, “our primary goal of nutrition care is to prevent nutrition deficiencies, achieve and maintain a healthy weight and preserve their lean body mass,” she said.
Johnson said special care must be taken for patients undergoing chemotherapy that may increase risk of infection and increase chances for heartburn and nausea.
“We advise those patients to avoid things like raw meats and wash vegetables,” he said. “They should eat more of a bland diet, avoiding anything tomato-based.”
Also, drinking lots of water is important “to help clear some of the medications out of the body,” Johnson said.
Eating healthier “benefits any of the cancers,” Battle said.
That means eating fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes – same as what people should be consuming to prevent cancer.
But a healthy diet is not enough, Battle said.
“It’s not just nutrition. It’s a healthy lifestyle of exercise, not smoking, not drinking and keeping yourself at a healthy weight,” she said.
How much of a role nutrition plays in preventing or causing cancer, versus other factors, such as a heredity or the environment, is “hard to say,” Johnson said. “Certainly, smoking is the highest-risk thing that you can do.”
Smith started her journey back to wellness with diet and nutrition, but she got stronger after recovering from a double mastectomy. She began by walking more, and that led to running and participating in races.
“I started setting goals and … I still do (races) to this day,” she said. “I’ve scheduled two half-marathons within the next year.”