Board Member Kari Thielke-Weber Discusses Cancer and Nutrition

After being diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2008, Kari Thielke-Weber RDN, CEDRD, CD became a Gifts of Love recipient. She has been cancer-free since August 2008. As a way to pay it forward for other people fighting cancer, Kari joined Chix 4 a Cause’s board of directors in January 2009. She has been serving as our board’s President since 2010.

As a registered dietitian nutritionist who’s certified in eating disorders, Kari is an expert on eating to stay nourished. I recently talked with her about how cancer affects nutrition. Here’s what Kari had to say.

How does nutrition for people fighting cancer differ from nutrition for healthy individuals?
For people fighting cancer, eating becomes even more important for maintaining strength and blood glucose. Patients should eat smaller meals throughout the day. Based on the individual’s treatment, small meals typically are better tolerated. Each person needs to learn through trial and error what works for them and what doesn’t. For example, individuals undergoing chemotherapy may be nauseous and may create poor association with food. Therefore, it’s important to keep on hand easily prepared meals
and snacks that can be eaten on the go.

How do cancer and cancer treatment affect nutrition?
The location of the cancer can have the greatest effect on nutrition. For example, mouth, throat or neck cancer may cause difficulty with taking in food. Overall, the effects of treatment may be decreased if a patient is not well-nourished. Because an individual may become weak and fatigued, they need to have easily prepared meals and snacks on hand at all times. Also, people fighting cancer need to consider the stage of the disease, their quality of life and nutritional status at the start of treatment. There’s a significant difference between an individual who is well-nourished and one who is not or has heart disease, diabetes or other health concerns. Those raise additional issues related to nutrition.

How does cancer affect a person’s eating habits?
People fighting cancer should consider smaller, more frequent meals because they’re better tolerated throughout the day. Individuals should have on hand easily prepared meals and nutrient-dense snacks such as peanut butter, tuna, cereal, trail mix, granola bars or cheese and crackers for when they feel like eating. Liquid supplements are acceptable forms of nutrition and should be kept in the refrigerator so they taste better. Also, cancer patients should eat with others and let them help prepare food to keep in the refrigerator or freezer and heat up when desired.

How can cancer lead to eating disorders?
If anyone stops eating as much as they need to, their body can move into starvation state. Starvation slows down major organs and blood sugar, which adversely affects the healing process. If you find that you have decreased the amount of nutrients your body needs and have had noticeable weight loss or gain, consider seeing a registered dietitian.

How can people who are fighting cancer deal with weight loss?
People fighting cancer should eat the foods best tolerated and not judge the food as good or bad. For increased nutrients, follow these tips: Use milk rather than water when preparing soups. Add full salad dressing to salads. Put butter on anything. Add extras to pasta. If the smell of cooking makes an individual nauseous, they should leave the room while another person makes the meal. Also, they should consider taking small portions and go back for seconds so they feel less overwhelmed with eating. If on pain medication, the individual should take it a half hour before meals to minimize interference.

Does nutrition for adults fighting cancer differ from nutrition for children fighting cancer?
Because children are still maturing, they have different nutritional needs than adults. Children need increased nutrition because they are experiencing bone, brain and linear growth. Therefore, children should eat whatever they can tolerate. This is not a time to place food into “good and bad categories.”

What are some foods that people fighting cancer should and should not eat?
There are no hard rules about proper nutrition for people fighting cancer. As long as they’re being nourished and not being shamed for what they’re eating. Incorporate more whole grains, fruits and vegetables when able to increase the antioxidants in your diet.

What types of physical activity are recommended for people fighting cancer?
Because people fighting cancer may feel tired or fatigued, they should engage in physical activity whenever they feel able. Building strength and endurance helps with the healing process. For example, the YMCA provides a complimentary/low-cost LIVESTRONG program for cancer patients. The 12-week physical activity program provides customized exercise programs based on individual needs. The certified fitness instructors are trained in cancer survivorship, post-rehabilitation exercise and supportive cancer care. Survivors and potentially their families receive membership to the YMCA during the program.

Should people fighting cancer take dietary supplements?
For people fighting cancer, food is the best format for taking in the necessary nutrition. A daily multivitamin may be added to their diet. A vitamin D supplement should be considered as well.

Is there anything else you would like to add?
As a cancer survivor, I want to remind everyone that there’s hope. As well as Chix 4 a Cause, there are so many resources available. Take advantage of them. You’ll meet new friends and find new opportunities to pay it forward.

As an added bonus, any person fighting cancer who receives a Gift of Love is welcome to contact Kari Thielke-Weber for a complimentary nutrition consultation. Email her at

Board Member Kari Thielke-Weber Discusses Cancer and Nutrition

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