We look at why cancer causes weight loss and what can be done to help keep your weight and energy levels up

Cancer and its treatments can affect your eating habits – and your weight. Today, we’re talking about weight loss and what to do to help manage your weight when you have cancer.

Cancer and Weight Loss

Why Does Weight Loss Happen When I Have Cancer?

There are many factors that can contribute to weight loss even before patients are diagnosed. For instance, the cancer itself may produce chemicals called “cytokines” that can give you less of an appetite or cause nausea. Or the location of a tumour may place pressure on the digestive tract, making you fill up on food easily or have a hard time swallowing. After receiving a diagnosis, anxiety about the diagnosis and upcoming treatment can take away appetite. Then once treatment begins, side effects such as nausea, diarrhoea, taste changes, and sore throat can change what and how much people are eating.

Talking About Treatment-Related Weight Loss

Weight loss may be upsetting as it can be a visible reminder of your illness. When you lose weight due to cancer or its treatment, you’ll see a different image of yourself from the one you’re used to. It can be hard for some people to accept that they now look different because they have lost weight. It’s natural to feel like this and it’s part of adapting to the way you see yourself. People often keep their thoughts and feelings about their bodies to themselves. But keeping your worries hidden can make them grow into something bigger, so it’s important to talk to someone – whether a professional counsellor or a close friend or family member you’re comfortable confiding in.

How Can Cancer-Related Weight Loss Be Treated?

As with any side effect experienced during treatment, it’s important to talk to your oncologist to decide what’s best for you. To help manage these symptoms, your doctor may prescribe medicines like anti-nausea medications and steroid medications or refer you to a dietitian for advice.

If you’re really struggling with weight loss, you may need to have a feeding tube put into your stomach through the skin and muscle of the abdomen (called a percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy or PEG tube)

What Can I Do to Help Maintain My Weight When I Have Cancer?

Along with taking any medicines your doctor prescribes, there are a few things you can also try to help your body stay strong.

Ways to gain or maintain weight during cancer treatment

  • Eat a balanced diet, and be sure to include protein to protect lean body mass. Beef, pork, poultry, tofu and soy nuts are excellent sources of protein. (Have a look at some of our cookbooks that have been made especially for those with cancer)
  • Choose foods with sauces and gravies, which are easier to swallow than dry foods.
  • Use full fat products like milk and butter instead of semi-skimmed milk and margarine
  • Avoid meat that must be chewed vigorously. Shredded meat is easier to eat.
  • Instead of three major meals, have four to six smaller meals per day.
  • Drink plenty of liquids throughout the day, including water, soups, smoothies, protein shakes and sports drinks.
  • Keep a journal. Keeping details of the side effects that you experience will help your healthcare team. Keeping a  journal or notebook will allow you to keep all of your health information in one place. It may be helpful to keep a journal detailing: Physical activities you do and how they affect your mood and energy level, your diet, fluid intake and type of fluid, medications you’re currently taking.