Talking to an expert: The crucial role of nutrition in cancer care

March is National Nutrition Month®. Sponsored by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, National Nutrition Month focuses attention on the importance of making informed food choices and developing sound eating and physical activity habits. 

In honor of this annual campaign, we spoke with Alyssa George, MA, RDN, program manager at Oncology Nutrition, Providence Cancer Institute, about her journey to a career in oncology nutrition. We asked her about the important connection between cancer and nutrition and the vital role her team plays in improving a patient’s health and well-being. 

What led you to oncology nutrition? 

Working with people with cancer fell into my lap. I worked at an outpatient nutrition clinic that divvied up our roles by diagnosis. The registered dietitian who was seeing cancer patients transferred to another facility, so I took over. It was one of the best things that’s happened to me!  

What appeals to you about working with cancer patients? 

It can be hard maintaining good nutrition while going through treatment.  It’s rewarding to connect with people, understand their dietary needs and preferences. I like to help them come up with a plan to make dietary changes. What they eat can help them feel better and improve their health. There is a LOT of nutrition information out there that can be really confusing or contradictory, so it’s nice to clarify things for people.   

What positive outcomes can people with cancer see from working with an oncology dietitian? 

We can help take away some of the stress around knowing what to eat and what not to eat.  We help people come up with grocery lists, putting the nutrition recommendations into something practical. And we provide ongoing support throughout treatment. 

What are two pieces of advice you share with your patients as they go through their treatments? 

The first is to have patience. Sometimes people get frustrated because they’ve lost weight and want to gain it back, or they aren’t eating like normal because they don’t feel well. It takes time for those things to improve and that can be hard for people to come to terms with. The second is to be open-minded.  One side effect is the change in taste. I encourage people to try new cuisines or new spices or even food they historically haven’t loved because it might taste different during treatment.  

How do you work with your patients’ families/caregivers?  

Very often we work with the patients and their care partners. Many times, someone else is doing the cooking for the person going through treatment. A consultation is as much for them as the patient.   

How has oncology nutrition changed in the past decade, in terms of how treatments affect patients and/or how the profession has advanced?  

There are constantly new therapies to target cancer, and often there are nutrition-related side effects that come along with them. Staying on top of the new treatments and understating how they affect someone’s ability to eat is important. 

Based on your experience, what makes the oncology nutrition program at Providence Cancer Institute unique? 

The dietitians in the oncology nutrition program are true experts. We all have advanced practice certifications in oncology nutrition and/or nutrition support. Our program is robust in identifying people at risk for malnutrition, as well as supporting people who have more general nutrition questions.  We are able to see a wide variety of diagnoses, not just the sickest people, which is a great service to those who come to Providence. 

On a personal note, what is your favorite meal of the day, and why? 

This is a tough one because I love food! But I’m also a disaster if I don’t have breakfast so for me it truly is the most important meal.  I could eat eggs virtually every day of the week. Especially with a good hot sauce. 

About Providence Oncology Nutrition 

There are tests, questions, treatment plans, and potential side effects that can affect all aspects of life, including nutrition. Providence Cancer Institute patients have a wonderful resource to help ease their way when it comes to this issue: registered dietitians specializing in evidence-based oncology nutrition.   

Our team of registered dietitians specialize in cancer nutrition and are here to help. They work closely with patients to set nutrition goals and advise ways to achieve them. The team also hosts cancer nutrition classes twice a month that are free for all cancer patients. Learn more about Providence Oncology Nutrition. 

"Nutrition Matters" is available in several languages 

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Virtual education: Food and common cancer myths 

Register for a free, virtual cancer nutrition class 

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