Weighing a healthy 160 pounds for her 5-foot-10-inch frame, Leslie Scott-Rose was not one of millions of cancer patients who suffer malnutrition.
Although her mouth might taste metallic, Scott-Rose never had bouts of nausea or loss of appetite, both common side effects of chemotherapy. She and husband Mitch Rose, 58, attributed her vitality in the face of breast cancer to healthful meals — usually vegetarian — supplemented with vitamins and medicinal herbs and served with persistently positive attitudes until Scott-Rose's July 11 death at the age of 53.
"I know everything we did made a difference in nutrition," says Rose. "She never lost weight."
Rapid weight loss isn't solely the consequence of cancer patients' inability to eat or indifference to food. Many treatments destroy the body's healthy tissues along with malignant cells. Cancer patients, practitioners and caregivers are challenged to build up the body while breaking down the disease.
"Cells are dying when they're putting chemo in," says Rose. "There's new cells, and we wanted 'em to be strong."
A vegetarian for 30 years, Rose upheld the ethic throughout his wife's four-year battle with cancer. Morning began with a fruit-based beverage enhanced by nuts, nutritional yeast and spirulina and protein powders, followed by a bowl of oatmeal with cinnamon and raisins. Lunch could be portobello-mushroom sandwiches, dinner sunflower-seed patties with steamed vegetables — particularly collard greens, "an incredible broom" for the intestines, says Rose.
"They used to laugh at us," says Rose of staff and patients at Medford's Hematology Oncology Associates, "when Les was getting her chemo and we'd be drinking her green drink."
But the potion of leafy greens and algae was gulped in between the couple's chuckles over their green teeth. The food he prepared, says Rose, was just the barest expression of love and support for his wife of 25 years, who took the most sustenance from an "alchemy" at work in their united front against cancer.
"Alchemy" is how chef Rebecca Katz describes tempting the cancer patient's palate with highly nutritious foods from her book, "The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen: Nourishing, Big-Flavor Recipes for Cancer Treatment and Recovery."
The educator for Commonweal Cancer Help Program in Marin, Calif., says providing delicious, healthful dishes is the single most important — and most often overlooked — element in treating the nation's 1.5 million cancer patients.
"Food is part of the healthy arsenal against illness," Katz told the Contra Costa Times. "The more whole foods you eat, the more you create an inhospitable environment for cancer cells."
Characterizing the body as "terrain," Jonathan Treasure applies the same crowding-out concept at Ashland's Centre for Natural Healing. The herbal medicine practice specializes in treating cancer patients also undergoing mainstream medical treatments. Many cancer patients take herbal supplements against the advice of physicians who fear adverse interactions with pharmaceuticals, says Treasure, who has spent five years writing a second edition of the 1,000-page manual "Herb, Nutrient and Drug Interactions: Clinical Implications and Therapeutic Strategies," published in 2007.
Treasure emphasizes the highly variable nature of cancer, with symptoms that differ from person to person, along with appropriate therapies. It's a philosophy he shares with practitioners of other persuasions. For this reason, health care professionals dispel the notion of a single "cancer diet," explaining that foods must be chosen with regard to the type of cancer, its effect on the body and treatments.
"Your cancer is going to be unique ... and what to do is going to be completely unique," says Dr. Howard Morningstar, who treats about 1,000 cancer patients in his Ashland complementary medical practice.
"Food is just one piece of the puzzle."
Yet some pieces fit into anyone's plan for supporting the body's healing process amid cancer. The whole-foods diet touted for prevention is just as applicable to combatting disease, says Morningstar. He prescribes beverages containing — like Scott-Rose's — high concentrations of kale, broccoli, garlic, apples, apricots, carrots and beets, all of which have proven cancer-fighting properties. Easily digestible protein from fish, chicken, nuts, seeds, whole grains and organic dairy products is essential, he says.
"Your body's immune system uses protein to make all the molecules it needs to fight cancer."
Morningstar generally advocates "live" foods, including sauerkrauts and active-cultured dairy products like kefir and yogurt. Registered dietitian Christi Anderson, of Providence Medford Medical Center, also recommends probiotics with the caveat that immunosuppressed cancer patients should never consume unpasteurized or uncooked foods that could contain live microorganisms. Extra care must be taken even with fresh fruits and vegetables, which should be thoroughly washed before eating, says Anderson.
These precautions and specific menu plans for cancer patients join advice for reconciling side effects and the need to eat in a 70-page handbook published by the National Cancer Institute and distributed at Providence. Commonplace tips include choosing full-fat dairy products for the additional calories, tart foods to stimulate saliva in sufferers of dry mouth and plastic utensils to minimize metallic flavors.
But some typical strategies, such as swishing sodium solutions over mouth sores, do little to alleviate pain, says Treasure. He favors teas infused from mucilaginous botanicals, such as slippery elm bark and licorice root. Both have anti-inflammatory properties that soothe raw tissues, he says.
For nausea, herbalists, dietitians and doctors all agree that ginger is perhaps the best remedy, particularly for patients sensitive to anti-nausea drugs, which can be expensive.
"Ginger has gotten evidence behind it," says Treasure.
The best evidence of what to eat, however, is in patients' own palates, which can change with treatments and the progression of illness. Depending on the meal, more acidic, saltier or sweeter foods have the power to stimulate tired taste buds, says Katz.
"When a patient feels like there's something that sounds good to them, we try to encourage it," says Anderson. "The challenge isn't to keep them away from foods; it's trying to get enough foods into them."
For Rose, that meant compromising some convictions about healthful eating to accommodate his wife's cravings.
"Even at the end, we started to eat some meat," he says. "And she loved the taste of it."