Dealing With Cancer Treatment Weight Loss

Weight loss is common in people who have cancer. In fact, according to, up to 40 percent of cancer patients report unexplained weight loss when diagnosed, and up to 80 percent of those with advanced cancer have both weight loss and cachexia (loss of weight and muscle mass and generalized weakness).

Cancer may affect your ability to eat and tolerate food, or change the way your body uses nutrients.

Treatment side effects can make eating difficult or unappealing, leading to anorexia (loss of appetite or desire to eat), especially in people with cancers of the head, neck, and esophagus, stomach, or intestines. Patients often don't get sufficient nourishment from the food they do eat, leading to malnutrition. They may also maintain a consistent weight, but at the expense of fat tissue replacing lost muscle mass.

If, and how much, weight you lose depends on several factors, including cancer location (people with cancers in the neck and head region especially struggle with problems eating), severity of cancer at diagnosis, type and frequency of treatment, and side effects from treatment, such as loss of appetite, changes in taste or smell, constipation, diarrhea, nausea, or a sore mouth.

You can take steps to minimize weight loss and maximize nutrient intake during cancer treatment.

  1. Eat 5 to 6 small meals each day, rather than three large meals.
  2. Choose foods that taste and smell good to you.
  3. Keep healthy snacks, such as nuts and dried fruits, nearby and nibble throughout the day.
  4. Drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated and replace fluids lost through nausea or diarrhea.
  5. 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.
  6. Increase your protein intake by adding cheese, hard boiled eggs, beans, dried fruit, protein powders, and nuts to salads and other meals.
  7. Serve foods cold or at room temperature to minimize potentially offensive odors.
  8. Stay active. It can stimulate your appetite.
  9. Take ginger in capsule form if you are nauseous.
  10. Add high fiber foods if you are constipated; avoid them if you have diarrhea.
  11. Limit your consumption of fat, sugar, alcohol, and salt.
  12. Use low-fat milk instead of water in recipes.

Cancer treatment is not the time to try to lose weight. Take care of your nutritional needs so your body has the strength it needs to fight your cancer and handle the rigors of treatment.



National Cancer Institute. "Eating Hints: Before, During, and After Cancer Treatment." Web. 30 September 2009.

National Cancer Institute. "Facing Forward: Life After Cancer Treatment." Web. 30 July 2010.

National Cancer Institute. "Nutrition in Cancer Care (PDQ®)." Web. 28 December 2011.

Wiel, Andrew, M.D. "Preventing Weight Loss During Cancer Treatment?" Web. 9 March 2010. "Weight Changes." Web. 26 October 2011. "Eating to Maintain or Gain Weight After Treatment." Web. 20 March 2012. "Weight Loss." Web. 13 February 2012.

Mannheim, Jennifer K., ARNP, and Longstreth, George F., MD. "Diet - cancer treatment." Web. 22 July 2010.