Scholarship awarded for nutrition research in head and neck cancer patients

Tuesday 7 May 2024

Master of Science in Nutrition and Dietetics student Ruby Young has been awarded the university’s Master’s Research Scholarship to support her novel study into the nutrition perceptions of people with head and neck cancer.

As the annual number of head and neck cancer diagnoses continues to rise, Ruby says nutrition is an important area to consider as the resulting treatments’ impacts on the body can affect a person’s ability to eat and drink.

“Patients with head and neck cancers often require nutrition support and alternative feeding methods. The cancers and their treatments can affect an individual’s ability to maintain a nutritionally adequate diet, placing them at high risk of malnutrition. Navigating eating post-treatment can evoke strong attitudes and beliefs around food choices and consumption methods, making it essential to understand patient perceptions to optimise nutrition plans and support recovery.”

Challenges can range from difficulty swallowing through to changes in taste and appetite due to treatment. Patients with malnutrition may experience reduced energy levels and increased susceptibility to illness. This decreases the body’s ability to respond to treatments and hinders recovery.

Ruby says she was motivated to explore this area in her research given how much the head and neck cancer community go through in their treatments.

“Patients can go through intense radiation therapy, surgical reconstruction, eating changes, tube feeding and more. It’s important for clinicians to understand what this group thinks about their nutrition to ensure the best care can be provided, and the best health outcomes can be achieved.”

Her research aims to fill gaps in existing literature by focusing on patient nutrition perspectives and potential health outcomes. Ruby says she intends to provide comprehensive insights that will inform nutrition professionals.

“This is a new area of research, and through the study I want to look further into the head and neck cancers community, including Māori who experience significantly higher cancer incidence and mortality rates than non-Māori. Culture influences individual perspectives, yet little is known about how Māori cultural perspectives on the way that nutrition impacts cancer management and treatment outcomes.”

The study has been planned in consultation with the Head and Neck Cancer Support Aotearoa charity, nutrition and oncology professionals and cancer patients. Data collection will involve online qualitative research in the form of surveys to gather and analyse beliefs from individuals across the country diagnosed with head and neck cancers.

Ruby says she’s grateful to be the recipient of the Massey University Master’s Research Scholarship.

“It has made me think deeply about how my research aligns with the university’s values of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and how I can best incorporate diverse cultural perspectives. It feels nice to be acknowledged for the work I did last year and has relieved a bit of financial stress, allowing me to focus more on my thesis. A big thank you to my supervisors Maria Casale, Dr Rachel Batty and Professor Emerita Pamela von Hurst for their ongoing help in getting my thesis project up and running.”

The 22-year-old says she chose to study with Massey as she’d heard it had an interactive programme with lots of people-facing time.

“I enjoy talking to others and hearing their stories, and I’m passionate about understanding how food can impact and support the body. There have been challenges, especially as I made the move from Otago to Auckland, which was an adjustment, but I’ve met an amazing bunch of motivated and passionate students and enjoyed all the challenging learning. I have really enjoyed my clinical placements, especially my block two in Whangārei. It’s so rewarding seeing the huge value that dietitians bring to their patients’ lives.”

Ruby will continue to work on her thesis throughout the year, along with her public health placement at Ka Ora, Ka Ako, and her final placement at Te Whatu Ora Counties Manukau Hospital.

She says this journey has taught her a lot about herself.

“Moving to Auckland meant building new friendships, adapting to city life and being away from my usual support systems. The master’s programme pushed me out of my comfort zone, so I have learned a lot about my work ethic, confidence and abilities at Massey.”

Are you ready to take your nutrition and dietetics career to the next level?

If you’re interested in how food, nutrients, health and wellbeing intersect, the accredited Master of Science (Nutrition and Dietetics) programme offers you the chance to contribute to a healthier, brighter future for communities.

Join the upcoming webinar on Tuesday 27 August 2024 to learn about how to become a registered dietitian.

Find out more and sign up here.

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