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Lung Cancer Nutrition: The Perfect Storm

By Margaret Martin, RD, MS, LDN, CDCES November 11, 2015Pearls of Wisdom Blog

November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month. Does it seem like more and more people are diagnosed with lung cancer? And many are people who have never smoked or been exposed to asbestos or other environmental factors like radon. While smoking remains the highest risk factor, there is an increase of lung cancer among people, especially women, who would not be considered at a high risk for lung cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that there will be over 220,000 new cases of lung cancer this year.

Lung cancer is sneaky. It’s is often diagnosed in the later stages, such as stage II or IV. Symptoms may be nonexistent or masked as allergies or life changes such as fatigue, cough, hoarseness, wheezing, weight loss, or bone pain. Older patients especially may be pleased that the pounds are falling away and give little credence to fatigue and breathing changes. I mean everyone is getting older and multi-tasking, so it’s normal to be tired or out of breath, right? No. If you experience any of these symptoms chronically, visit your doctor. The earlier cancer is diagnosed the better.

Additionally, a later diagnosis makes nutrition interventions more complicated. (See Diagram A.) Proper nutrition is especially important for lung cancer patients because lung cancer can create the perfect storm to lead to malnutrition and decreased quality of life. The early loss of muscle increases the workload of breathing and therefore, also increases the body’s caloric requirements. Furthermore, malnutrition can lead to breaks in treatment plans that may make treatment less effective.

What are the options to treat poor nutrition early and appropriately for lung cancer patients?

  • Early screening for lung cancer. Even if you have no risk factors, ask for a CT scan, chest x-ray or other screenings that you and your doctor find appropriate, especially if you experience the symptoms of lung cancer.
  • Stop unintentional weight loss. It’s a bad thing if you’ve lost more than 5% of your weight at diagnosis, you are already very slim, or have a low BMI <18. Fight weight loss with everything you can throw at it. Be creative. Add calories to what you are already eating. Eat more often. If you aren’t hungry for a meal, have a liquid nutrition drink that’s high in calories. Grab a high-calorie snack or beverage before bedtime. A bedtime snack won’t affect your morning appetite.
  • Ask for a referral to a registered dietitian nutritionist for medical nutrition therapy (MNT) early in your treatment, or even before treatment starts. MNT is beneficial in helping you find a way of eating that suits your lifestyle, treatments, and resources. There is no one LUNG CANCER DIET. You are unique and so are your eating habits, other health concerns or allergies.
  • Be open to new foods and beverages. Now is the time to try foods you may have shied away from before your diagnosis. Add some new and different food items to the grocery list this week. Branch out and explore all the flavors available. For many people, their tastes will change while in treatment. You make new taste buds about every three weeks. Bring some new flavors into your meals to add extra calories where you least expect them.
  • Move it. Building muscle helps to win the fight against malnutrition. If you are approved for physical activity, do some light weight lifting with soup cans or 1-2 pound weights. Walk around in the house or outside. Keep your body in motion. Physical activity helps sustain stamina, combats stress, and supports healthy body functions like blood sugar control, digestion, and waste elimination. Find some activities you like, or try some new ones such as Tai Chi, swimming, walking, or rowing. Dress the part. Add some colorful workout clothes to your wardrobe to lift your mood. Get off the couch and back to your life maybe at a slower pace or less frequent outings, but just do it!
  • Advocate. Share your story with others who may be at risk for lung cancer but haven’t thought about lung cancer because they don’t smoke or are young. Talk to your church, book club, parent teacher association, and coworkers about lung cancer awareness. Post your journey online through social media, make a video or a picture timeline of your experience. Get involved! Join a community of survivors or plan a meal for others in need. Reaching out to others can energize you!

Lung cancer doesn’t have to be a perfect storm. Be proactive and prevent weight loss and gradually build up muscle. Ask for information and nutrition assistance sooner instead of later. Don’t wait until you have lost more than 5% of your weight before you ask for help.


Margaret Martin, RD, MS, LDN, CDCES

Author Margaret Martin, RD, MS, LDN, CDCES

Nutrition Educator Margaret Martin is a Licensed Dietitian and Nutritionist in the State of Tennessee as well as a Certified Diabetes Educator. Margaret graduated from the University of Alabama with a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics and received her Master’s Degree in Nutrition Science & Public Health from the University of Tennessee. With more than 10 years of experience in Clinical Nutrition, Margaret has also worked in the insurance industry with WellPoint Inc. and Blue Cross Blue Shield providing telephonic nutrition consultations, service assistance, and web-based nutrition education. In her free time Margaret volunteers with the American Lung Association’s annual “Lung Force Walk" in Middle Tennessee. She belongs to the Oncology Nutrition & Diabetes Care and Education Dietetic Practice Groups of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

More posts by Margaret Martin, RD, MS, LDN, CDCES

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