September is Blood Cancer Awareness Month. Blood cancer is an umbrella term for a number of diseases, including leukemia, lymphoma, myeloma, and myelodysplastic syndromes. Blood cancers, also known as hematologic malignancies, are expected to account for about 10% of the estimated new cancer cases diagnosed in the US in 2020. These cancers occur because the usual process of blood cell growth is disrupted. Thus, blood cells that are vital to health and immune function are limited in their power to circulate nutrition and oxygen to parts of the body, defend tissues from infection, and control coagulation. Blood cancer and treatment can lead to nutrition-related issues.
Blood cancer and treatment may cause side effects that limit intake and metabolism of food. Side effects may include anemia, change in digestion, taste changes, poor appetite, loss of strength, pain, and weight loss. A person who is not receiving or absorbing proper nutrition and the right amount of calories or nutrients needed for healthy bodily function will become malnourished. Cancer patients who are malnourished are at greater risk for health complications, hospitalization, infections, loss of muscle strength and poor quality of life. A study found that almost 37% of hospitalized blood cancer patients were at risk for malnutrition at the time of admission.
Loss of Lean Muscle
Chemotherapy and targeted treatments for blood cancers, such as acute myeloid leukemia (AML), can impact a person’s ability to consume enough nutritious foods, reduce physical activity, affect muscle function, and hinder the body’s ability to absorb nutrients from food. This can lead to a rapid loss of lean muscle, called “sarcopenia.” When muscle wasting occurs at a high rate, the resilience of the person with blood cancer is compromised, and sarcopenia is associated with worse treatment outcomes.
People with myeloma may experience bone thinning and lesions caused by the growth of myeloma cells in the bones. This may cause pain and fractures. Treatments for blood cancers may also affect bone health.
How To Prevent and Manage Nutrition-Related Issues
Nourishing your body with healthy food choices and fluids is key to navigating the effects of blood cancer and treatments. After a blood cancer diagnosis, you can focus on these strategies:
- Eat the best you can within your resources. Include healthy plants, lean protein, vegetable oils, adequate calories, and physical movement in your lifestyle.
- Choose more foods that are moderately or minimally processed as compared to ultra-processed foods from a factory, such as prepackaged snacks.
- Resist the urge to put yourself on a restrictive diet, replace real food with dietary supplements, and lose weight, which can affect your ability to fight infections and rebuild healthy cells.
- Get your treatment team together. Ask for a referral to registered dietitian nutritionist and physical therapist for pre-treatment assessments and guidance on staying well during treatment.
- Give your treatment team a list of all your medications and dietary supplements for review to check for potential interactions.
- Seek reliable information for your specific diagnosis and treatment plan. Speak one-on-one with an LLS Information Specialist who can assist you through cancer treatment and give accurate disease and treatment information.
- Find a support group, such as LLS Community, an online community of blood cancer patients, survivors, and caregiver, to find resources and help you feel connected.
 Voss A and Williams V, eds. Oncology Nutrition for Clinical Practice. 2 ed. Oncology Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group; 2021: 287.