Leukaemia and lymphoma: Diet and nutrition tips

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Leukaemia and Lymphoma are life-threatening diseases that require dedicated care and concern, especially when it comes to dietary requirements. 

Whether you’re caring for someone with blood cancer, or going through the fight yourself, mastering the dietary recommendations for leukaemia and lymphoma is an important part of the treatment and recovery plan. 

Types of food people with blood cancer should eat 

It’s important to acknowledge that no diet, supplement, or superfood can cure cancer. That being said, eating well and getting appropriate nutrition from your diet can go a long way in your fight against cancer as you undergo treatment, rest, and recover.

To achieve the best overall health that you can, you should strive to include every food group and take a well-balanced approach towards nutrition. 

Here are some types of food that you should consider eating more or adding to your diet:

Plant-based proteins

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Plant-based proteins offer some of the highest levels of vitamins and minerals that will be vital to your fight against blood cancer. Eat beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds as much as possible in your daily diet. If you prefer animal proteins, do try to choose lean options like chicken or fish.

Healthy fats

Healthy fats like monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats have health benefits like lowering your bad cholesterol levels while providing nutrients that your body cells need to develop. Omega-3 fatty acids which are found in foods like avocados, olive oil, grapeseed oil and walnuts are also good for reducing inflammation and improving cardiovascular health.

Healthy carbohydrates

Carbs will be important in your fight against leukaemia and lymphoma as they provide most of your daily energy needs. Choose healthy carbs that are minimally processed such as whole wheat, bran, or oats.

Vitamins and minerals

Vitamins and minerals boost our immune systems and help to reduce inflammation, which is helpful in your fight against leukaemia and lymphoma. Where possible, try and choose foods fortified with vitamin D such as orange juice, yogurt and some cereals.

Food, supplements, and vitamins to avoid 

As much as you should eat healthily in your fight against blood cancer, it’s also important to take note of food, supplement, and vitamins that you should avoid: 

Green tea

Green tea may adversely obstruct a lymphoma drug, bortezomib, from working as well as it should. While such findings have been found only in animal trials thus far, it’s best to consult your doctor and figure out if you’re on this medication and avoid green tea for now if you are.

Raw or undercooked fish

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Given the strain on your immune system, it would be unwise to eat raw or undercooked fish such as sashimi or sushi.

Soft-cooked eggs or foods with raw eggs

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These foods have an elevated risk of bacterial infection for weak immune systems. Examples include homemade mayonnaise, hollandaise sauces, and soft-boiled breakfast eggs. 

Unpasteurized cheeses and dairy products

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When undergoing treatment for leukaemia, it is likely that your body would have a lower white blood cell count. As these white blood cells are responsible for fighting bacteria, eating cheeses and dairy products made with unpasteurized milk may cause food poisoning.

Additionally, mould-ripened cheese such as camembert, brie and goat’s cheese, as well as blue-veined cheeses, should be avoided. Instead, opt for processed cheese when you can.

Unwashed fruits or vegetables

Similarly, unwashed fruits or vegetables may contain bacteria on their outer surfaces. Do wash your fresh fruits and vegetables before peeling or cutting them.

Maintaining a healthy weight during leukaemia treatment

When dealing with leukaemia and lymphoma, you may feel too tired to cook or eat, or food may taste different. Treatment may also be taxing on your body. You may therefore find your appetite shrinking or being unable to eat as much as before.

To maintain a healthy weight during this period, you can follow these tips: 

1. Try smaller snacks or meals throughout the day

Rather than three big meals a day, having five or six small snacks or meals throughout the day may be easier for you to handle. Using smaller portion sizes could also help them seem more manageable.

2. Stay hydrated

Getting plenty of fluids can help with diarrhoea or constipation and other treatment side effects. Water also doesn’t have to be your only option. Try soups, broths, tea or herbal drinks if you feel like it.

3. Prepare food when you can

It can be tiring to prep food on some days. Consider meal-prepping so you can have something ready to eat even on days when treatment has you feeling too under the weather to cook.

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4. Accept ready-made food

Ready-made, convenience foods and snacks can be consumed on occasion. They can be a source of comfort and help if your appetite is poor, or you’re feeling sick or tired.

5. Consume sugar normally

While many people worry about sugar consumption during cancer treatment, there is no proof that a sugar-free diet actually helps to avoid or survive cancer. Eat a sweet treat, you deserve it.

6. Try new spices and dishes

Adding spices like chilli and garlic to your food can help kickstart your appetite again if your sense of taste has changed. Trying new dishes from other cuisines can also help you regain your enjoyment and love for food.

Food safety dos and don’ts

Given your weakened constitution, it is important to follow the following food safety tips: 

  • Wash your hands with warm, soapy water for 20 seconds before and after preparing food and before eating.
  • Refrigerate foods at or below 4.5 degrees Celsius.
  • Keep hot foods hot (warmer than 60 degrees Celsius) and cold foods cold (cooler than 4.5 degrees Celsius).
  • Thaw meat, fish, or poultry in the microwave or refrigerator in a dish to catch drips. Do not thaw at room temperature.
  • Use defrosted foods right away. Do not refreeze them.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables well under running water before peeling or cutting. Do not use soaps, detergents, chlorine bleach solutions, or commercial produce rinses. Using a clean vegetable scrubber, scrub produce that has thick, rough skin or rind (melons, potatoes, bananas, etc.) or any produce that has dirt on it.
  • Rinse packaged salads, slaw mixes, and other prepared produce again under running water, even when they are marked as pre-washed. Using a colander can make this easier.
  • Don’t take your chances with moldy or rotten-looking food. Instead, throw them away. 

When to contact a doctor

If you’re unsure of what exactly is missing from your diet or you want to know more ways of improving your diet, you should consider approaching a professional dietitian. They will be able to advise you appropriately based on your unique circumstances and considerations.

Leukaemia and lymphoma can be scary diseases to handle, and we wish you all the best in your battles against them.  

This article was first published in Homage.

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