Being Well

What Does a Dietitian Do? A Guide for Cancer Patients

Learn more about the role of your dietitian during cancer treatment.

Proper nutrition is essential if you have cancer — it can help you feel better and improve the outcome of your treatment. Both cancer and cancer treatments can affect the way your body uses the nutrients you get from food. Your doctor may recommend an appointment with a dietitian if she thinks you aren’t getting the right nutrients. But what does a dietitian do?

Dietitians are the “go-to” professionals for any nutrition problem. Even if you’re healthy, dietitians can find ways to maximize your diet. As research continues to show the benefits of a plant-based, nutrient-rich diet, many dietitians also work with people to find dietary ways to help prevent cancer.

What Does a Dietitian Do?

If you have cancer, a dietitian will find ways for you to get enough nutrition each day, especially if your cancer treatment prevents you from stomaching certain foods. Getting enough nutrients can help you keep up your strength, manage side effects and boost your immune health.

Samantha Diamond and Carole Havrila, both registered dietitians at UVA who have specialized in treating oncology patients, say that if you’re undergoing treatment for cancer, one of their main goals will be to maximize your nutrition so you can get through treatment and on to recovery.

“An oncology-focused, healthy diet tries to be as plant-based as possible without cutting out animal protein,” says Diamond. “We try to get at least half your plate full of fruits and vegetables, and at least a quarter should be healthy grains. After that, we look at what kind of healthy protein you can add.”

The diet advice they give is tailored to your concerns and conditions. “We’re able to handle any nutrition issue, and we see patients with all types of cancers. People with head, neck and GI cancers tend to have lots of nutrition issues just because of where their cancers are,” says Diamond. “But most patients who undergo oncology treatment see us.”

This personalized approach to nutrition keeps you on a diet that will help minimize complications and the side effects of cancer.

What Should You Expect?

Before your first meeting with your dietitian, you may be asked to keep a food diary for a week. This allows your dietitian to see what types of foods you’re usually eating and where he or she can add in additional foods to boost your daily nutrition.

Don’t worry about judgment — dietitians are there to help you eat healthier, not condemn you for food choices you’ve made in the past. “We work to ease any anxiety you may have by having friendly conversations about your nutrition habits and goals, and creating a comfort zone for you. We’re not here to judge,” notes Diamond.

Additionally, you shouldn’t worry about not meeting your daily nutrition goals. Some recommendations simply won’t work, and that’s OK. If you’re having trouble sticking to your new nutrition plan, your dietitian can make other suggestions to help you get the nutrients you need. Depending on your personal health status, you may be asked to take nutrition supplements in addition to making certain dietary changes.

Proper nutrition can make a difference in both the way you feel and the way you respond to treatment. If you’re concerned about your nutrition status or if you’d like recommendations for eating a healthier diet, ask your doctor about meeting with a registered dietitian. Dietitians can help you make a plan for getting the nutrition you need so you can get through your cancer treatment as easily as possible.

Eating healthy is crucial to staying healthy. For more information about maximizing your diet, reach out to the UVA Nutrition Center.

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Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN