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Equipping Caregivers of Cancer Patients
By David Yeager

Getting adequate nutrition is a significant concern for cancer patients, whether they’re preparing for surgery, recovering from surgery, or undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatment.

Maintaining a healthy weight, eating enough protein, and getting vital nutrients are essential for proper healing and recovery, but many cancer patients experience a reduced appetite, either due to the cancer or the treatment.

To help cancer patients get the nutrition they need, a dietitian and a chef at Duke Cancer Center in Raleigh, North Carolina, have developed a program called Cooking With Caregivers to educate patients and their caretakers about simple, effective ways to get more protein and other nutrients into their diets.

The program is geared toward caregivers because they often take on the tough challenge of preparing nutritious meals and caring for cancer patients recovering from surgery and undergoing cancer treatment, which is time consuming, stressful, and tiresome.

Simple Recipes
Once a month, Lindsay Kovacic, RD, CSO, LDN, and Bruce Reinecke, a certified executive chef and the executive chef manager with Aramark Healthcare Services at Duke Cancer Center in Raleigh, demonstrate quick, easy recipes and cooking tips that add nutrients to dishes without adding much preparation time. Kovacic and Reinecke typically spend one hour giving a presentation and answering questions, but people usually pick up useful information in just a few minutes.

“We find that people are busy and somewhat in a hurry, so if we can capture them for 10 or 15 minutes and pass off a few recipes and a couple samples, we’re really happy with that,” Reinecke says. “We want to make it as easy and fun as we can for the patients and caregivers.”

To that end, Kovacic and Reinecke select recipes that require a minimum amount of cooking and preparation, such as dips, cold soups, and smoothies. Some recent recipes they’ve shared include pineapple salsa, roasted corn guacamole, and sweet potato hummus. All of the recipes are geared toward people who don’t have much culinary expertise.

Pump Up Protein
Because weight loss is a common problem among cancer patients, Kovacic and Reinecke favor nutrient-dense foods. Physicians won’t perform surgery if a patient is too frail or has a protein deficiency, so getting adequate protein is essential.

Kovacic says protein malnutrition is the most common secondary diagnosis in cancer patients. Protein helps maintain muscle mass, but it also promotes healing and muscle recovery after surgery and during chemotherapy and radiation treatment. A snack that includes an avocado and egg salad that substitutes Greek yogurt for mayonnaise can be served with crackers or in a tortilla wrap to help patients get the nutrients they need without eating a large meal.

“Avocado is a great way to get some healthful fat, but that healthful fat provides a lot of calories, so it will help patients maintain their weight through treatment,” Kovacic says. “Also, Greek yogurt helps to get some additional protein into the diet in a small amount of volume. A lot of times, we’re working with patients who have early satiety, so different ways that we can get a lot of nutrients in a small bite is what I focus on.”

Other foods that are given top priority are leafy greens such as kale, which can be used in salads or blended into smoothies, and lentils, which are a good source of protein and can be substituted for meat products that are high in saturated fat. Kovacic says smoothies are especially useful because any number of fruits and vegetables can be combined to suit any palate while helping patients get nutrients they may not have obtained. Kovacic and Reinecke recently made a creamy cucumber soup, as Kovacic thought patients with mouth sores, a common side effect of chemotherapy, might find it soothing.

Kovacic and Reinecke try to focus on flexibility. Reinecke recommends that people substitute ingredients they don’t like for ones they do like. Within the framework of Cooking with Caregivers, Kovacic says there are numerous opportunities to educate people about how to improve the nutritional content of their meals by making small changes. And Kovacic and Reinecke say they’ve learned plenty from each other.

“It’s been a lot of fun working with an executive chef,” Kovacic says. “We’ve kind of been on the same page as far as what types of recipes we want to try, but it’s been fun learning different food preparation techniques, like something as simple as how to open an avocado, or proper storage techniques. If I buy a big head of greens, how do I store it to make sure it’s not wilted by the end of the week? Also, working with immune-suppressed patients, we need to make sure that their food safety is a top priority. So it’s been fun to collaborate with another profession.”

— David Yeager is a freelance writer and editor based in Royersford, Pennsylvania.