Protein is found in every tissue in the body. It is essential for growth, repair and general maintenance of health. Due to its capacity to aid the development of lean muscle tissue, facilitate healthy weight control and support muscle repair, protein has become a hot topic in the fitness industry. It is for exactly the same reasons that adequate protein consumption is vital for cancer patients at all stages.
Three reasons why protein is so important when fighting cancer
- For the maintenance of lean tissue mass
Cancer and the treatment side effects can result in both a reduction in new protein being formed (known as protein synthesis) and an increase in protein being broken down, creating a negative net protein balance and the potential for lean tissue loss (known as ‘cancer cachexia’). Lean tissue loss can lead to lower physical functionality and a lower quality of life. More importantly, it lowers chances of survival over time. Eating sufficient protein and maintaining a positive calorie balance creates an anabolic state (protein synthesis > protein breakdown) preserving lean tissue mass and maintaining physical function.
- To support immune function during periods of immunosuppression
Cancer and cancer treatments can compromise the immune system. For example, chemotherapy reduces the production of white blood cells which support immune function and response. This increases the risk of infection. Protein is integral in the structure and function of all immune cells and is thus vital to facilitating an immune response and offsetting some of the negative effects of treatment.
- To enhance recovery post-surgery
As well as a much-needed immune response after surgery due to inflammation and risk of infection, dietary protein is also vital for the production of collagen in the body, which is the predominant protein needed to form scar tissue. Post-surgery, protein is also essential for the maintenance of lean tissue mass during recovery. In the time after surgery, muscles are likely to atrophy due to prolonged periods of immobilization. Therefore, both protein intake and moderate exercise are crucial for maintaining muscle mass and function during this time.