Eating after cancer: Finding a new relationship with food

By: Sanford Health News .

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When Jay Forney began his aggressive treatment for his neck cancer in the fall of 2015, he weighed 194 pounds. Today, Forney tips the scale at a mere 136 pounds and doesn’t expect much of that lost weight to ever return.

“It’s a challenge for me to eat 2,000 calories in a day,” Forney said. “The inability to really enjoy a variety of food is one of the things I miss the most.”

Expert help is here

Helping Forney add a few pounds, enhance his taste buds and increase his energy level is Sanford Bemidji dietitian, Heather Knutson.

“Nutrients play a role in almost every metabolic process. Everything your body does is impacted by the food you eat,” Knutson said. “Everything in the body is a series of steps and the nutrients you consume are part of those steps.”

A patient with head and neck cancer faces some unique challenges when it comes to consuming food. In Forney’s situation, a gastrostomy tube (G-tube), or feeding tube, was needed during his treatment to ensure he received the fluids and calories his body needed.

“I like to think of the G-tube as the life preserver during treatment,” Knutson said. “With head and neck cancer patients, we work pretty much on a weekly basis to modify the foods they need to take orally, and balance that with what they need to take through the tube.”

“Heather was patient with me,” Forney said of his consumption balancing act. “I was still losing weight, but we were able to slow the weight loss. But we were most concerned about my energy levels.”

A plan designed just for you

Because each cancer and each patient is unique, Knutson develops customized treatment plans for each patient she helps.

“No two cancers or diagnoses are the same, so treatment has to be individualized to fit the patient,” Knutson added. “It is incredibly inspiring to see what people can do when faced with extreme challenges. And it is a blessing to be able to witness the process.”

Forney is continuing his dietary transition but good things take time.

“There are 80 muscles involved in swallowing and I had to teach each of those muscles how to relearn the process,” he said. “My taste sensation is so slight now that I get as much enjoyment out of a microwave meal as I would high-end meal from a five-star restaurant. About all I can taste is chocolate.”

Just like the cancer itself, the way patients experience taste change is also different from person to person.

“There are different tricks and tips we use to help make food taste better and help the patient navigate through the side effects such as dry mouth and trouble swallowing,” Knutson said. “There are many dietary challenges of survivorship, including incorporating foods that help reduce risk of cancer re-occurrence.”

The power of food

In many cancer instances, including Forney’s situation, a switch to a plant-based diet seems to be the most effective dietary option.

“Roots, vegetables, whole grains, seeds and nuts are all helpful when you are faced with the side effects of treatment,” Knutson said. “Adding these foods may be a challenge but the goal is to navigate through them and resume life with a new way of eating.”

And a new plan for regaining weight and strength.

“The side effects of treatment can be very long lasting,” Knutson said. “Fatigue and muscle mass loss can be very difficult side effects during treatment and can result from a combination of inactivity, inadequate intake of food and nutrients, plus the physical demands of cancer treatment. Some fatigue is inevitable but we try to use a combination of nutrition and physical activity to combat the fatigue. The trick is to make sure the patient has enough intake to provide the strength for the physical activity.”

Forney continues on his path of recovery and, with the help of Knutson and the rest of the Sanford Bemidji medical family, many obstacles have been overcome.

“Everybody’s needs and desires for what they want out of the process is different and we match the patient with a nutrition plan that fits the patient and the family,” Knutson said. “Our objective is to meet them where they are at and help them to meet the goals they have set for themselves.”

Posted In Cancer, Health Information