Ernestine Trujillo
Ernestine Trujillo

Ernestine Trujillo plays an important role in helping people through their cancer treatment. She helps them to eat. Eating keeps their strength up so that they can get through treatment. But eating during cancer treatment isn’t always easy.

Trujillo, a senior clinical nutritionist at the University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center, offers myriad methods to help people get the nutrition they need.

“The way I like to approach it is to look at food as important as medication,” Trujillo said. “We don’t take our medication because it tastes good; we take it because we know we have to.” And food may not taste good at all during cancer treatment. Some of the side effects of chemotherapy include changes in taste buds, poor appetite, nausea and vomiting. Even water can taste funny, making dehydration a concern.

Losing weight during cancer treatment may seem like a benefit, but it’s not. “In most cases, this is not a time for weight loss,” Trujillo said. “The goal during treatment is to maintain weight, which is a challenge for many patients.” The weight lost during cancer treatment usually results from the body losing protein. Losing protein means losing lean muscle and that detracts from overall health.

Running down body fat stores also presents problems. “We really want to preserve that mass (especially lean body mass) to make sure the patient has the endurance to get all the way through to the end of treatment,” Trujillo said. She adds that people should try to lose weight, if they need to, after treatment.

Trujillo focuses her dietary advice on what each person is willing and able to eat. But for some people, swallowing or keeping food down can become particularly difficult during cancer treatment. For these people, Trujillo recommends a feeding tube. “The beauty of tube feeding is that even if you are not able to eat, we can still provide nutrition,” she said. “When it comes to that point, it gives us a safety net to help see the patient through the end of their treatment.”

Cancer patients face other barriers to eating besides finding tasty food. Cancer puts a financial strain on many families. Getting to the grocery store can be a burden, too. And cooking can tax the physical stamina of cancer patients and their caregivers. “I tell patients: don’t hesitate to ask for help,” Trujillo said. “This is the time to ask.”

Trujillo is a licensed and registered dietitian in practice since 2001. A native New Mexican, she completed both her Bachelors and Master of Science degrees at the University of New Mexico. She has also earned her Certificate of Training in Adult Weight Management with the American Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics.

Over the years, Trujillo has cared for patients with varying degrees of nutritional needs including hospital Intensive Care Unit, Cardiac care, Long term care, Outpatient counseling, Home Health & Hospice as well as transitioning patients on and off of enteral and parenteral feedings. Through these experiences she has developed a passion for oncology nutrition.