Healthier diet may help avert nutritional problems in head and neck cancer patients: Study

Washington, Dec 17 (PTI) Eating foods rich in antioxidants, and other micronutrients may reduce the risk of head and neck cancer patients losing their appetite up to one year after being diagnosed, according to a recent study.

The researchers, including those from the University of Illinois in the US, said at least 90 per cent of head and neck cancer patients develop symptoms that affect their ability or desire to eat, due to either the tumour itself, or the surgery or radiation used to treat it.

They said these problems, called nutrition impact symptoms, have wide-ranging negative effects on patients’ physical and mental health, and quality of life.

In the current study, published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention, scientists analysed the dietary patterns of 336 adults with newly diagnosed head and neck cancers.

They obtained data on the patients' tumour sites, stages, and treatment from their medical records, and more than half of them had stage 4 tumours at diagnosis.

The study noted that these patients had problems with eating, swallowing and inflammation of the digestive tract -- a painful inflammatory condition called mucositis.

According to the researchers, the condition is a common side effect of radiation treatment and chemotherapy.

'Dietary inflammatory potential could impact the presence and severity of chronic adverse treatment effects among patients with head and neck cancer,' the researchers wrote in the study.

The diet had mitigating effects, particularly in people who had never smoked, and in patients who were underweight or normal weight at diagnosis and often experienced the greatest eating and digestive problems during treatment, said study first author Sylvia L. Crowder from the University of Illinois.

'While previous work has established that the presence of nutrition impact symptoms is associated with decreased food intake and weight loss, no studies have examined how pre-treatment dietary intake may influence the presence of these symptoms later in the course of the disease,' Crowder said.

The patients completed a questionnaire on their diet, tobacco and alcohol use, and quality of life prior to starting cancer treatment, and again one year post-diagnosis.

They were asked to report whether they experienced any of seven nutrition impact symptoms – such as pain or difficulty chewing, tasting or swallowing foods and liquids – and rated on a five-point scale how bothersome each symptom was.

On analysing the patients’ eating habits, the researchers found that they followed one of two major dietary patterns.

One of them was the Western pattern, which included high amounts of red and processed meats, fried foods and sugar.

The other was the prudent pattern, which included healthier fare such as fruits and vegetables, fish and whole grains.

According to the study's findings, patients who ate healthier at diagnosis reported fewer problems with chewing, swallowing and mucositis one year after treatment.

'While the origin and development of nutrition impact symptoms are complex and varied, they generally share one common mechanism – cell damage due to inflammation,' said Anna E. Arthur, study co-author and an oncology dietitian from the University of Illinois.

'The prudent dietary pattern has the potential to reduce inflammation and affect the biological processes involved in the pathogenesis of these symptoms,' Arthur added.

According to the researchers, some patients may begin eating healthier after being diagnosed with cancer, potentially counteracting the pro-inflammatory effects of their previous dietary habits.

They said it may also be possible that the patients' lack of symptoms may have enabled them to consume a broader range of foods, including healthier whole foods, before their cancer was discovered. PTI VIS VIS VIS