Eating isn’t just a matter of survival or enjoyment; it can also serve as a weapon in the fight to live.
To make sure it’s as effective as possible, UCHealth started offering the services of an oncology dietitian to cancer patients two years ago in Fort Collins, Loveland and Greeley. Now, Liz Nyce, a certified oncology dietitian, dedicates her entire schedule to helping patients in northern Colorado.
Oncologists see the service as crucial in treating cancer patients.
“If you’re healthy, you’re better equipped to fight cancer; if you have good eating habits, it may not prevent you from getting cancer, but it decreases your risks,” said Dr. Doug Kemme, a UCHealth medical oncologist in northern Colorado. “If you’re in better shape, you’re able to tolerate the treatment and derive more of a benefit from what it offers.”
Eating healthy is “enormously important,” he said. “Studies have shown the right kind of diet can really reduce the risk of developing so many different cancers.”
And that’s why offering the expertise of an oncology dietitian is becoming the norm in cancer centers across the United States, according to JoAnn Lovins, UCHealth’s senior director of Oncology Services in northern Colorado.
“If you look at national standards for oncology programs across the nation, an oncology dietitian would be considered standard,” she said. “Clinical evidence shows it benefits patients. We want to make sure people get the nutrition they need to get through the treatment and heal,” she added, noting Nyce serves cancer patients as well as at-risk family members who want to know more about healthy eating and cancer prevention through diet. “The oncology dietitian meets all those needs.”
Seeing the benefits
Kemme said he knows his patients are benefiting from having a dietitian available.
“Our patients need help with their nutrition for different stages of their diagnosis and treatment,” he said. “Any kind of cancer can lead to problems eating — problems with chewing or swallowing or digesting certain foods. Some patients are struggling just getting enough calories in; they can’t eat enough or keep their weight up. Both treatment and cancer itself can cause these issues.
“Liz can really figure this out; she knows cancer, she knows all the different effects it has. She can help them get their weight back on or keep from losing more weight.”
He admitted that often when patients are undergoing treatment, they just eat whatever they can because their appetites may shrink and their tastes change. “[Nutrition needs] are different for that short part of your life that you’re on treatment. For the rest of your life, you need to make sure you eat healthy.”
An experienced team player
As a board-certified specialist in oncology nutrition with six years of experience, Nyce has the expertise to teach patients how to do just that.
“I get many different referrals for all different cancer types,” Nyce said. “Nutrition is different for each person and each kind of cancer.”
She noted she sees some of her patients only once. They want to know the best foods to eat to help their bodies respond positively to treatment, to manage their weight and to resist a recurrence of cancer.
“Eating the right kind of foods, while monitoring portion sizes and paired with physical activity, promotes a healthy body weight. Obesity is linked with a number of different types of cancers,” she said.
“That’s a big reason” to find out how to eat to prevent cancer or a recurrence. “Some patients may have gained weight with treatment, such as with prostate or breast cancer, and they’re looking at how to combat it and make good lifestyle changes,” Nyce said.
The patients Nyce gets to know best are those at risk for malnutrition because of the severity or kind of cancer they have or the rigorous treatment they must undergo, such as Kemme’s patients with gastrointestinal cancer or those with head and neck cancer, she said.
“A lot of times my patients and I talk about how we can increase the caloric density of the food in a healthy way,” Nyce said. “We also discuss how to repair tissue and increase muscle mass through plant-based proteins and, for meat eaters, healthier animal protein choices.”
Lovins said Nyce has become an integral part of the team of doctors, nurses, physical therapists, social workers and other care providers within UCHealth’s Cancer Care program in northern Colorado.
“It’s a value to the patient because they have only one site to go to,” she said. “They may have different appointments but only one visit.”
Nyce dedicates all of her time to serving as a certified oncology dietitian with UCHealth’s Cancer Care program. She previously spent her time with Medical Nutrition Therapy at Poudre Valley Hospital. Now Nyce sees patients in Fort Collins Monday through Wednesday and Friday, and she visits Loveland patients on Thursday morning and the Greeley patients Thursday afternoon.
Nyce will also offer a lecture series on various aspects of diet and nutrition several times a year, with support from the PVH and MCR Foundation.
“There are many ways we can help cancer patients and families navigate through their journey,” Lovins said. “Food and nutrition doesn’t have to be an awful experience.”
“The right diet can improve the quality of life for our patients as they go through treatment,” Nyce added. “It is just another way we can help improve lives.”