When the shock of a cancer diagnosis strikes, food might be the last thing on a person’s mind — but nutrition plays a big role in survival rates.

Eighty percent of [cancer] patients are never referred to a dietitian or nutritionist with a specialty in oncology.

The most common secondary diagnosis for cancer patients is malnutrition, with 50 to 80 percent of cancer patients experiencing this debilitating condition. Severe wasting of muscle and tissue, called cachexia, accounts for 30 percent of cancer-related deaths overall — 30 to 50 percent of deaths in patients with gastrointestinal tract cancers, and up to 80 percent of deaths in patients with advanced pancreatic cancer.

Despite these eye-opening numbers, 80 percent of patients are never referred to a dietitian or nutritionist with a specialty in oncology.

In addition, 35 percent of cancers are connected to poor nutrition. Many cancer patients have unhealthy eating habits even before diagnosis.

Doctors attribute weight loss and malnutrition during cancer treatment to three things: 1.) decreased nutritional intake (chemotherapy and radiation can cause loss of appetite, nausea, change in taste, and difficulty swallowing); 2.) increased need for calories as the body fights disease or tumors; and 3.) blocked or reduced absorption of nutrients due to metabolic issues within the body.

Cancer-related weight loss is sometimes drastic, and can be very distressing to family members.

Related: Top 5 Foods Cancer Patients Should Eat

Jeanne Adams (not her real name) of West Des Moines, Iowa, may have saved her mother’s life with her own knowledge of nutrition and her Ph.D. in animal science. Eileen Adams became dangerously thin while fighting colon cancer — she simply lost interest in food and found it hard to make herself eat, saying everything tasted like sawdust.

“I took over quite quickly,” Jeanne Adams said. “I knew she needed bio-available heme-iron. Spinach was fine, if combined with milk. I pushed as much red meat as she could stomach and all the calories she could get.”

“Keep nutrition a priority for optimal health and strength. Nutritional therapy can ease the side effects of treatment, too,” said one expert.

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Adams was especially proud that her mother’s iron levels were always high enough for her to continue her chemotherapy interrupted. She is now in remission.

Holly Clegg found her personal experience invaluable, too, when her father battled larynx cancer 15 years ago and became seriously malnourished. A culinary expert from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Clegg created special recipes to maintain her father’s comfort and interest in food.

“Each person dealing with cancer treatment has a different type of cancer, receives a different type of treatment, and reacts differently to each treatment,” she told LifeZette. “Everyone has side effects, and maintaining adequate calories and nutrition during cancer treatment can be difficult. It is very important to keep nutrition a priority for optimal health and strength, but nutritional therapy can ease the side effects of treatment too.”

Clegg experimented with what foods her father could tolerate and enjoy, and wound up writing a bestselling cookbook, “Eating Well Through Cancer,” which is organized by side effects, including chemotherapy, sore mouth/throat, appetite loss, neutropenia, diarrhea, and constipation. The updated edition, due out in August, features high calorie/high protein recipes and a new section on smoothies, which many nurses recommend as calorie boosters.

Clegg threw a 70th birthday party for her father, which occurred just after he finished chemotherapy. She made a special meal of soft foods and served ice cream instead of cake.

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Unfortunately, not every family has a member who is as knowledgeable and resourceful as Adams or Clegg.

Jessica Iannotta, a registered dietitian and certified specialist in oncology nutrition (CSO), stresses prevention, but also promotes better diets after cancer has gone into remission. She is chief operating officer of Savor Health in New York City, which focuses on technology-driven nutrition solutions for cancer patients.

“The patients I see before treatment begins always have an easier time managing their nutritional needs and staying strong,” she said. “Nutrition is also an important factor in recovery and remission. Eating healthfully reduces your chance of recurrence. That’s why it’s so important.”

Also urging patients to pay attention to nutrition is Dr. Julie Roth, medical director of Baxter International, Inc., in Deerfield, Illinois, which manufactures health care products.

“There should never be a significant period of time when a patient goes without nutrition to support their recovery,” she said. “Patients need to advocate for themselves by asking for help or resources if their health care team doesn’t address this topic.”

Iannotta agreed most patients have to advocate for themselves, if family can’t do it for them.

“Food is medicine,” she said. “Just as you have to undergo radiation or chemo to fight the cancer, food is your medicine to stay strong and healthy for the fight.”

Pat Barone, CPCC, is a professional credentialed coach and author of the Own Every Bite! bodycentric re-education program for mindful and intuitive eating.