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Patient education: Managing loss of appetite and weight loss with cancer (The Basics)

Patient education: Managing loss of appetite and weight loss with cancer (The Basics)

What can cause me to lose weight or have no appetite? — You can lose weight or have no appetite because of your:

Cancer – Even if you eat a lot, your cancer might keep your body from taking in all the nutrients it needs.

Treatments – Treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation have side effects that can make it hard to eat. For example, these treatments can cause nausea, vomiting, mouth sores, tiredness, dry mouth, or changes in taste and smell.

Pain – Having pain from either the cancer or treatment (especially surgery) can cause you to lose your appetite.

Mood – Feeling sad or worried can make people lose their appetite.

Why is it important to eat enough? — It's important to eat enough so you stay as healthy and strong as possible, especially during your cancer treatment. Eating enough and getting enough fluids will also give you more energy and help you feel better in general.

What foods can help keep my weight up? — Eating foods with a lot of calories and protein in them can help keep your weight up. Some examples of these foods are:

Thick soups

Milk, milkshakes, cheese, pudding, and smoothies

Nutritional supplement drinks, such as Ensure, Boost, or Carnation Instant Breakfast

Eggs, chicken, lean red meat, and fish

Yogurt, frozen yogurt, and ice cream

Peanut butter, nuts, dried fruit, and granola bars

What can I do on my own to eat enough? — To eat enough and make sure that your body gets the nutrients it needs, you can:

Eat 5 to 6 small meals a day, instead of 3 large meals

Eat healthy snacks in between meals whenever you feel hungry

Add butter, oil, nuts, gravy, powdered milk, protein powder, or cream to your foods to give them extra calories and protein

Drink fluids between meals instead of with your meals, so you don't fill up on fluids

Eat foods that smell good, or add spices or condiments to your food

Eat with family or friends

Buy pre-cooked foods or cook food ahead of time and freeze it

Ask someone to cook or shop for you, if you are unable to cook or shop

Take a short walk about an hour before you eat to help you work up an appetite

Ask your doctor if you should take vitamins or work with a nutrition expert

If you have side effects from your treatments that are keeping you from eating, these tips might help:

If you have a dry mouth, drink lots of fluids and avoid foods that are hard or dry (such as toast or crackers). You can eat moist foods, or suck on ice chips or sugar-free hard candy.

If you have mouth sores, eat soft foods that you can chew and swallow easily. You can also cut up your food into small pieces or mash it in a blender. Try to avoid spicy or salty foods.

If you have nausea, eat foods that are bland and dry, such as crackers, rice, and toast. Avoid foods that are spicy and greasy.

If you have trouble having a bowel movement, try to drink more fluids. You can also eat foods with a lot of fiber, such as vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, oatmeal, and some breads and cereals (figure 1).

If you have diarrhea, try to drink a lot of fluids so your body doesn't lose too much water. Try to avoid milk, greasy foods, and foods with a lot of fiber.

When should I call my doctor or nurse? — Call your doctor or nurse if you:

Are not able to keep any food or drink in your stomach

Have severe belly pain

Are dizzy or weak

Have a fever

Are there medicines that can increase my appetite? — Yes. Doctors can prescribe different medicines to help increase a person's appetite. Medicines that doctors commonly use include:

Hormone medicines

Steroids – Doctors usually recommend that people not take these medicines for more than a few weeks. Even though these medicines can help, they can also cause problems of their own.

Some people wonder about trying marijuana (or other forms of cannabis, like CBD oil) to help increase appetite. But studies have not shown that this works in people with advanced cancer, so doctors do not recommend it.

Are there other treatments that can help if I have no appetite or lose weight? — Yes. Sometimes, doctors use other treatments if people are unable to eat or if their body doesn't take in nutrients from the food they do eat.

People who can't eat on their own but whose bodies can digest food might get "tube feedings." People who get tube feedings get their food and nutrients through a tube that goes into the stomach or small intestine (figure 2).

People whose bodies are unable to digest food might get their nutrition through a thin tube that goes into the vein. But doctors don't usually need to use this type of treatment for patients who have cancer.

More on this topic

Patient education: Managing pain when you have cancer (The Basics)
Patient education: When your cancer treatment makes you tired (The Basics)
Patient education: Nausea and vomiting in adults (The Basics)
Patient education: Diarrhea in adolescents and adults (The Basics)
Patient education: High-fiber diet (The Basics)
Patient education: What are clinical trials? (The Basics)

Patient education: Acute diarrhea in adults (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: High-fiber diet (Beyond the Basics)

This topic retrieved from UpToDate on: Jan 01, 2023.
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