Nicky Robinson, Nutrition Lead

Nutrition Lead with Penny Brohn UK, a Bristol-based charity providing free integrative health support to people affected by cancer

Nicky RobinsonI don’t have time and resources to review all the vast body of research on nutrition and cancer, but WCRF has done the work for us.

Cancer is an emotional journey, and staying buoyed throughout is about much more than just oncology and the medical treatment someone is receiving. One of the key messages we hear from clients is ‘I need more than medicine’. Penny Brohn’s Whole Life Approach is based on 40 years of working with our clients to support their mind, body, spirit and emotions, before, during and after cancer treatment.

We offer a range of individual and group services. Many of the people we work with live within a 100-mile radius of our national centre in Bristol but our signature residential courses, such as Living Well with Cancer, attract people from all around the UK.

No fads, just real food

I lead Penny Brohn’s nutrition team of three qualified nutritional therapists. We offer individual consultations, group courses and cooking demonstrations along with information and resources to help people understand the role of diet and nutrition in cancer and make informed food choices. Our healthy eating guidelines very much chime with WCRF’s Recommendations. We don’t advocate any fixed or faddy dietary regime, but encourage lots of real, whole foods with particular emphasis on plenty of colourful vegetables and fruits, herbs and spices, and fibre-rich foods. And crucially, we show people how to put the principles into practice in a way that is easy and enjoyable.

For most people, a cancer diagnosis is a great shock for them and their loved ones, and can affect most aspects of life. Some clients describe it as like being on a conveyor belt, passing through their treatment process, often with little control over their lives. Finding ways to regain some sense of control is so important for people during this difficult time, and one area most of us have some control over is what we put in our mouths each day. 

Patients feel more informed

It’s unsurprising, then, that many people re-evaluate their diet when diagnosed with cancer, but with so much information out there it can be very confusing knowing what to eat to best support their health. Clients will often come to us with a long list of all the things they have read they should be eating or doing, and this can be very stressful just at the time they least need that. Our focus at Penny Brohn is to try to allay the fears and pressures many people feel around dietary change. We try to reassure them that eating well doesn’t have to be demanding or expensive, and we put a big emphasis on food and eating being a source of pleasure and joy, as well as nutrients. But at the same time, we want to inform and empower our clients by sharing evidence-based information on the role of food and diet in cancer.

This is where WCRF’s work is so useful. It helps us show people what the research – extensive, global research – has found. At Penny Brohn, all our work has an evidence-based focus, and WCRF’s latest global cancer prevention report is a key ‘go-to’ resource. I have a copy on my desk and I use it regularly when working with our various teams, as well as with our clients. Many of them are very knowledgeable, and have done lots of their own research into their cancer, so it’s a really good starting point to be able to show them authoritative evidence on, for example, whether a particular food or drink may have a positive or negative impact on cancer risk or progression.  

Having WCRF tools to share with medical professionals is also helpful. There can still be some resistance within the oncology world about the role of diet, nutrition and physical exercise in cancer. Understandably, their focus is on getting the best out of the cancer treatment for their patient, but this can mean some people are told that it doesn’t matter what they eat or do. Patients may be told to eat lots of ice cream and fatty foods to keep their weight up, and some people find this disempowering when they want to eat more healthily. Having well-respected, authoritative resources such as WCRF’s Eat well during cancer booklet is so helpful for showing there are ways to maintain a healthy weight and support side-effects during treatment. Patients feel more equipped to speak in an informed way to their primary carers and make eating decisions for themselves.