The Importance of Protein for Cancer Patients

2 years 8 months ago
Posted under Nutrition

As a surgeon, I always emphasize the importance of excellent nutrition to my patients, especially those with cancer. I compare a patient’s experience to one of a world-class athlete. Both face tremendous pressure on the mind and body. However, the patient is playing for much more than a medal or a trophy. Their life is on the line, and they must adequately prepare. When you take great care of your body, it will take great care of you, particularly under stressful conditions. 

Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation certainly qualify as being stressful. Frankly, the treatment may seem as debilitating as the disease, itself.  Nutritional stability is the foundation required to help yourself obtain a good outcome. This is especially true concerning protein. Protein plays a key role in maintaining all body functions, as it makes up critical cell structures in muscle, organs, blood cells, connective tissue, and skin. Protein is a vital component in many of the body’s functions, such as: enzymatic reactions, hormonal structure, and keeps the immune system functional. It is the loss of protein which produces the complications of malnutrition. You simply cannot heal without adequate protein intake, and this is even truer with a surgical wound.

One breast cancer patient’s story drives home this point. After a post-operative mastectomy follow-up, she was cleared to receive chemotherapy and radiation next.  She, more than most, could simply not eat, and as a result, she became a “skeletonized” version of herself, despite all appropriate interventions. I barely recognized her. By not eating enough protein, she had no ability to fight infections. She developed pneumonia and lost her battle. Here, all treatment protocols were followed to the letter, but the cause of death was secondary to protein malnutrition. What a terrible thing to witness. Even though everything was done perfectly, we still lost the patient. The medical and surgical literature lists a wide range of percentages, 20%-90%, concerning cancer patient deaths related to protein malnutrition. No one may know the actual figure, but it is unacceptably high. This problem can be fixed:  We must do better.

I know it is work to eat the daily recommendation of protein, but if you are a cancer patient, you must find a way. To find how many grams of protein you need per day, divide your weight in pounds by 2.2 to obtain your weight in kilograms. It is recommended healthy adults need to eat 0.8 grams of protein, per kilogram of body weight, per day, (g/kg/d).   One kilogram equals 2.2 pounds. For example, if a person weighs 200 pounds, then divide this number by 2.2, which rounds out to 90 kilograms. Multiply the number of kilograms by 0.8.  90 x 0.8 equals 72 grams of protein.  This is the amount of protein recommended per day for a healthy person weighing 200 pounds. 

However, as a patient, this requirement is higher. Patients’ recommendations are 1-1.5 g/kg/d.  When calculating how much protein you need if you are a patient, substitute 0.8 grams with 1-1.5 grams.  In a 200 pound patient, the minimum requirement would then increase to 90 grams of protein per day.  I recommend increasing protein intake to meet these requirements on the day of diagnosis.

Please remember—the best possible outcome begins and ends with meeting this recommended intake of protein. Equate lean, quality protein as fuel for your body.


To learn more about protein and tips for getting your recommended daily amounts, visit My PearlPoint. 

Steven L. Snodgrass, M.D., F.A.C.S.