“When patients are getting nutrition information from different sources — the Internet, their family and friends — it can be confusing,” says Michele Lites, registered dietitian and certified specialist in oncology nutrition. “It’s nice to know there are accessible professionals current on the latest treatments who are ready and eager to assist.”
Lites is a Kaiser Permanente radiation oncology dietitian in Sacramento, Calif. In addition to medical nutrition therapy, she conducts cooking demonstrations for cancer patients and survivors. “We want to focus on making sure they’re getting that wide variety of nutrient-dense foods through really tasty and nutritious recipes,” says Lites.
Specializing in oncology nutrition requires flexibility and the ability to improvise. “Occasionally, if the only thing a patient can tolerate is rocky road ice cream, I tell them: ‘Guess what you get to eat?'” Lites says. “Does it mean I want them to do that for the rest of their life? No. But if we’re just trying to get through those rough two or three days after chemotherapy, and ice cream stays down and they enjoy it, that’s what we’re going to do.”
Lites also volunteers and is often called upon within the African-American community to lead healthy-eating presentations through California Nutrition Network faith-based projects and health ministries. African-Americans suffer disproportionately from heart disease, stroke and cancer, more so than other ethnicities, all of which are health issues impacted by nutrition. “There are so few African-American dietitians, and it’s really important to me to be active in the community to raise awareness of these facts and how to improve eating for long-term health,” says Lites.
Whether counseling patients, leading community workshops or working with students, Lites stresses nutrition’s importance to disease treatment and prevention. “One-third of all cancer deaths annually are linked to diet and being overweight,” she says. “What you eat can make all the difference in the world.”