Mary Bird Perkins Dietitians Host Statewide Conference to Share Best Practices

Mary Bird Perkins, Louisiana’s largest cancer center, was recently home for the second consecutive year for the Louisiana Oncology Dietitian’s Conference (LODC). The meeting was held at the Cancer Center’s main campus in Baton Rouge with about 50 oncology dietitians attending to discuss how to best engage with patients throughout their cancer treatment. The gathering allowed for networking and learning from dietitians throughout the state of Louisiana, including Mary Bird Perkins’ own dietitians from every campus.

In recent years, oncology nutrition has taken on a larger role in patients’ cancer journey with nutrition now recognized as an important factor in their treatment and seen as a component that can relieve some of the symptoms brought on by treatment. Through oncology nutrition, more emphasis is placed on using food as a healing mechanism that can provide a better quality of life for patients.

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Vadel Shivers, MS, RD, CSO, LDN, Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center in Baton Rouge and Meredith Bechac, MS, RD, LDN, Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center in Covington attend the 2023 Louisiana Oncology Dietitian’s Conference

Mary Bird Perkins is leading that effort by supporting registered dietitians as they enhance their education through oncology board certifications, PhD programs and expert conferences, like the Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo each year.

At the Cancer Center, presentations focused on spreading awareness of the role nutrition can play in cancer treatment and on the importance of nutrition before and after surgery. As dietitians are constantly adapting to new advancements and technology, conference leaders helped spark conversations among participants on how best practices can limit side effects that many patients face as a result of dietary restrictions and food insecurity.

Spearheaded by Meredith Bechac, MS, RD, LDN, a registered dietitian at Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center in Covington, the conference focused on cultivating creative ways to include other practitioners like physical therapists and social workers when customizing an individualized nutrition plan for patients.

The Therapeutic Food Pantry, launched in 2019, located at Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center in Covington
The Therapeutic Food Pantry, launched in 2019, located at Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center in Covington

Bechac, who can oftentimes be found hosting healthy food demonstrations at the Covington center, works with other staff members to address food insecurity for uninsured or underinsured patients facing financial hardships brought on by a cancer diagnosis. Through Covington’s innovative Therapeutic Food Pantry, patients have access to a plethora of healthy food options, both fresh and frozen, that won’t interfere with ongoing treatment. Her patient meetings include an educational component about why certain foods might be better depending on the diagnosis and treatment plan. For example, head and neck patients who are facing challenges in swallowing properly may need a diet comprised of soft foods.

“We like to make sure that every encounter is unique to the patient,” said Bechac. “I think it is important for the dietitians to counsel our patients to make sure all of their nutritional needs are being met and that they can adapt their diets accordingly at home. We have so many resources at the Cancer Center that allow patients to have a well-balanced and nutritious diet that helps in the healing process.”

This tailored approach was discussed at length at the conference as speakers gave examples of different patient conversations to employ throughout various stages of treatment that will make patients feel more comfortable and supported throughout their journey and even into survivorship.

IMG 7751While growing rapidly, oncology dietitians remain a small group across Louisiana. The LODC provides these professionals a wealth of opportunities to discuss region-specific challenges posed by food insecurity and unhealthy habits long ingrained. Participants were able to discuss ways to modify much-loved southern dishes into healthier options. For example, red beans and rice, a classic Louisiana staple, can be modified into a healthier version by substituting lower-sodium spices and swapping heavier pork sausage for either chicken or turkey sausage. Modifications like these help patients reach their nutrition goals, while still consuming familiar meals. The LODC is unique in that it helps foster connections between dietitian’s state wide to discuss southern food culture traditions that professionals from other states may not realize.

“I’m thankful that Mary Bird Perkins has placed such an emphasis on nutrition and how we and others across the state are helping advance the role food plays in cancer prevention, treatment and survivorship,” Bechac said. “A dietitian’s role in the patient’s journey to recovery is vital to make them as comfortable as possible, emotionally and physically.”

To learn more about the Cancer Center’s team of dietitians and renowned nutrition program, click here.