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Recovering From Cancer Weight Loss

Strategies for meeting your nutritional needs and getting back to a healthy weight after cancer treatment.

Recovering From Cancer Weight Loss

Many people with cancer experience weight loss, which can be a result of both having cancer and some of the therapies used to treat cancer. Unexplained weight loss—weight loss that occurs for no obvious reason, such as diet, exercise or being on a medication—is a sign of numerous types of cancer, including lung cancer, pancreatic cancer and cancer of the esophagus. Cancer may affect a person’s ability to eat and tolerate food, and in some cases may also alter the way the body metabolizes food, meaning that patients may not get sufficient nourishment from the food they are able to eat, leading to malnutrition.

Weight changes can also result from cancer treatments. Weight gain and weight loss are both possible side effects from chemotherapy, one of the most common cancer treatments. Radiation therapy, another common cancer treatment, can make eating and digesting food difficult, which can lead to weight loss. During treatment, people may experience side effects that make eating difficult, such as nausea, loss of appetite, changes in taste or smell, constipation, diarrhea and sore or dry mouth.

Weight changes are difficult to predict, which is why monitoring your symptoms and communicating with your healthcare providers is so important when undergoing cancer treatment.

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with cancer or is being treated for cancer, these strategies may help minimize weight loss and improve nutrition:

  • Eat 5 to 6 small meals each day, rather than three large meals.
  • Choose foods that taste and smell good to you, but try to eat a variety of foods.
  • Keep healthy snacks, such as nuts and dried fruits, nearby and nibble throughout the day.
  • Drink plenty of water and fluids to stay hydrated and replace fluids lost through nausea or diarrhea.
  • Consume calories and proteins in liquid form, especially if you have trouble swallowing or chewing. Smoothies, shakes, juices and soups may be easier to tolerate.
  • Increase your protein intake by adding cheese, hardboiled eggs, shelled and roasted nuts, beans, dried fruit and protein powders to meals.
  • Serve foods cold or at room temperature to minimize potentially unappetizing odors.
  • Stay active—it can stimulate your appetite.
  • Take ginger in capsule form if you are nauseated. Your healthcare provider may also prescribe anti-nausea medications.
  • Add high fiber foods if you are constipated; avoid them if you have diarrhea.
  • Limit your consumption of fat, sugar, alcohol and salt.

It may seem strange to take steps to keep on pounds during an era when so many people are struggling to lose weight and we are inundated with ads, articles and products promising weight loss. However, cancer treatment is not the time to try and lose weight. Your priority is to take care of your nutritional needs so your body has the strength it needs to fight cancer and handle the rigors of treatment.

Medically reviewed in February 2019.

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