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Clinical Nutrition for Childhood Cancer

Nutrition is a special concern for children living with cancer. The main goals of nutrition care are to help children grow normally and be active in age-appropriate activities. Good nutrition can help prevent problems such as illness, weight loss or gain, and fatigue. Nutritional care can give support for side effects and other issues that occur during cancer and treatment.

Nutritional care can also help families build healthy eating habits. Meals are an important activity that people do together. This can be more difficult with cancer, but nutritional care can help.

Clinical nutritionist reviews healthy food choices with pediatric cancer patient

Doctors often refer pediatric cancer patients for dietary assessment, counseling and/or nutrition therapy during treatment and recovery.

Nutrition Support

Nutrition support provides children who cannot eat or digest normally with the nutrients  they need to grow normally and be active. While it is best to take food through the mouth, patients who cannot eat may be provided with nutrition support.

Nutrition support includes enteral nutrition, or tube feeding, and parenteral nutrition, which sends nutrients directly into the blood stream.

How Nutrition Support Can Help

Cancer can prevent children from eating the foods they need for good health. Some treatments can cause foods to taste bad. Children may feel nauseous or lose their appetite. Some children may have discomfort or difficulty swallowing after treatment.

Nutrition support ensures that a child gets needed nutrients, helping avoid weight loss and keeping the body strong.

Nutrition and Cancer

Doctors often refer patients for dietary assessment, counseling, and/or nutrition therapy during cancer treatment and recovery. Medical Nutrition Therapy or Clinical Nutrition is offered in a variety of settings including hospitals and clinics. Nutritional care can help at each stage of the cancer journey.

For children with cancer, nutrition therapy can help patients and families manage:

  • Poor appetite. 
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Digestive problems.
  • Changes in how food tastes.
  • Sore mouth and throat.
  • Eating schedules.
  • Chewing and swallowing problems.
  • Supplements and diet needs.
  • Food safety for children with low immunity.
  • Weight gain or weight loss.
  • Food allergies.
  • Nutrition support (enteral and parenteral therapy).

What Is a Nutrition Professional?

Nutrition professionals — also known as nutritionists, dietitians, registered dietitians (RDs), or registered dietitians/nutritionists (RDNs) — are important members of the health care team. Dietitians have special training in different areas of nutrition. They can help with healthy eating habits, special diets and nutrition for illnesses, and therapies for children who cannot get enough nutrients from foods.

Specific services of a clinical dietitian include:

  • Nutrition assessment
  • Dietary counseling for health and wellness
  • Nutritional care for specific diseases (heart disease, hypertension, dyslipidemia, diabetes, celiac disease, cirrhosis, Chrohn’s and other GI diseases, HIV/AIDS, COPD, cystic fibrosis, kidney disease, eating disorders)
  • Infant and child swallowing and feeding
  • Malnutrition and growth disorders
  • Weight management
  • Women’s health: pregnancy, lactation, osteoporosis, anemia
  • Nutrition support: oral, enteral, parenteral

Finding a Nutrition Professional

Most nutrition professionals in health care settings are Registered Dietitians (RDs) or Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs). They have focused education and specialized training in nutrition and patient care. Registered dietitians have also passed a national examination. Some dietitians may have certifications in specialty areas, such as in pediatrics (CSP) or oncology (CSO). Many states require licenses for nutrition professionals (CDN, LDN). Your doctor can refer you to a dietitian who works with children.

You can also find an RD/RDN through the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Reviewed: June 2018