Nutrition and cancer

Nutrition plays an important role in the fight against cancer, from prevention to palliative care. The IAEA supports countries in using nuclear techniques to design prevention programmes and guide patient care during treatment and beyond.

Cancer prevention: the role of nuclear nutrition techniques

Cancer prevention is an essential component of cancer control.  Up to 50% of cancer deaths could be prevented by modifying or avoiding risk factors. Obesity and overweight are second only to tobacco in modifiable risk factors for cancer. A person’s body composition, specifically increased body fat, puts them at risk of developing twelve types of cancers, while physical inactivity contributes to three types of cancers.  With one in every third person overweight or obese, the risk of developing cancer is a real threat for a third of the world’s population and weight control is therefore a global priority. As there is strong evidence linking early life malnutrition and increased risk of non-communicable diseases in adulthood, cancer prevention must start from conception.

The IAEA’s activities in the field of nutrition help countries combat malnutrition and assess other factors linked to increased cancer risk.  

  • The IAEA supports the use of stable isotopes to assess body composition (lean mass and fat mass) and energy expenditure to design and evaluate the effectiveness of obesity prevention strategies in all age groups.
  • The IAEA supports the use of stable isotope techniques to assess infant breast-feeding practices; this is key because breast feeding decreases the risk of breast cancer in the mother and also the risk of obesity developing in the infant.
  • Infection with the bacterium H. pylori is the strongest known risk factor for gastric cancer, which is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths worldwide. The IAEA supports the use of a technique called “[13C] Urea Breath Test (UBT)” to detect the presence of H. pylori infection. 

Cancer Treatment: the role of nuclear nutrition techniques

Malnutrition is common in cancer patients, caused by the tumour and/or the treatments. The prevalence of malnutrition in patients with cancer has been reported to be as high as 80%.  Malnutrition can lead to poor clinical outcomes such as longer hospitalisations, treatment delays, and greater risk of mortality. Thus, nutrition plays a vital role in cancer care throughout the cancer journey.

In recent decades, progress in the early detection and treatment of cancer has led to a dramatic increase in the number of cancer survivors. Beyond active cancer treatment, cancer survivors are at risk of developing malnutrition, which increases their risk of associated health problems, which ultimately impacts their overall survival. Cancer survivors are also at an increased risk of fractures due to the accelerated loss of bone mineral density as a result of their treatment.

The IAEA’s activities in the field of nutrition enhance the capabilities of countries to detect malnutrition and monitor the nutritional status of patients undergoing cancer treatment to support their clinical care.

  • The IAEA supports the application of nuclear techniques, such as dual energy X-ray absorptiometry and CT scans, to assess body composition and bone density to guide nutrition interventions in cancer patients and survivors. 
  • The IAEA supports countries in using stable isotopes to assess body composition and energy expenditure to provide the much-needed evidence to understand the relationship between body composition, energy expenditure and cancer.


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