Keep cancer patients in mind when planning holiday meals

In 2011, almost 56,000 people in Michigan heard some devastating words for the very first time: “You have cancer.” The cancer diagnosis creates many new challenges for families, including plans for the holidays. For someone on cancer treatment, a traditional holiday meal might not have the same appeal, but that doesn’t mean you have to curtail your family gathering or leave them off the guest list.

A little extra thought and a few quick questions can help you make your holiday gathering a special time for everyone—regardless of their appetite or health issues.

“Cancer treatments don’t stop just because it’s the holiday season,” said Sharlene Bidini, RD, CSO, an oncology nutrition specialist with the Oakwood Health System. “You don’t have to jump through multiple hoops to make them feel comfortable; sometimes it’s just minor adjustments.”

Communication is the key, she said, both with the cancer patient and with the remainder of the guests. First, she said it’s important to find out what time of day is best to serve the meal.

“Sometimes, someone on cancer treatment can only eat well once a day,” Bidini said.

Likewise, it’s also important to cook in a well-ventilated kitchen, because some people on cancer treatment are more sensitive to the aroma. A simple way to reduce food odors would be to include cold and room-temperature items on the menu.

Follow food safety guidelines, too. People undergoing cancer treatment may be more susceptible to food-borne illnesses. Make sure to use clean cutting boards and avoid cross contamination—and keep the hot food hot and the cold food cold. “If their immune system is compromised, even something like a food-borne illness can send them to the hospital,” Bidini said.

Generally, vegetables should be well-cooked to improve digestion. Foods that are spicy or acidic should be avoided. If you’re serving punch, leave out the orange juice. Go easy on the pepper in the gravy and avoid things like tomatoes on salads—you can always keep those items on the side for those that want them. Providing a wide assortment of snacks and side dishes is generally a good idea, Bidini added.

“You just don’t want an entire table filled with things they can’t eat,” she said. “You have to keep the lines of communication open.”

When trying to determine which foods to prepare, one easy thing to remember is that meat is generally good for anyone undergoing cancer treatment and protein promotes healing. Bidini suggested baked chicken, turkey or fish, along with soft accompaniments. Mashed or sweet potatoes would be great with soft dinner rolls. Desserts like pudding or pumpkin pie with whipped cream are preferable.

Bidini recommended that anyone being treated for cancer see a dietitian, preferably an oncology nutrition specialist. Bidini, is one of only 14 board certified oncology nutritionists in the state of Michigan. “It’s not one-size-fits-all with cancer,” she said. The American College of Surgeons (ACOS) will require that nutrition services are offered to people on cancer treatment beginning in 2012. Those outpatient nutrition services are often not covered by health insurance and can be very expensive.

Oakwood recognized the value of nutrition services for cancer patients long before it became a requirement for accreditation. The Oakwood Center for Cancer Care has been providing individualized nutrition counseling, on-site, at no cost to the patient, since 2005.