Cancer treatment side effect: Malnutrition

Getting enough calories and protein helps patients stay strong and
fight cancer as well as other infections.

But studies show that up to 85% of cancer patients suffer from
malnutrition at some point during their cancer treatment. This common
cancer treatment side effect occurs when the
body doesn’t get or can’t absorb the nutrients it needs. And it’s more
common in patients with pancreatic cancer, lung cancer and upper gastrointestinal tract cancer.

Malnutrition can be hard to treat, so it’s important to catch it
early. The good news is that there are things cancer patients can do
to address malnutrition during treatment. We talked with Randi
Nicholson, a clinical dietitian at MD
, about what patients should know about malnutrition.

Here’s what she had to say.

Why do some cancer patients suffer from weight loss or malnutrition?

In most cases, weight loss and malnutrition result from appetite loss, which is a common side effect of
cancer treatment. Your doctor or dietitian may refer to this as
anorexia. Even though it’s not how most people typically think of
anorexia, the term simply refers to a loss of appetite. Cancer
patients may experience a loss of appetite for any number of reasons.
Cancer and cancer treatment can affect how food tastes and smells, so
that can impact a person’s desire to eat.

Some patients may also suffer from nausea. In some cases, the cancer itself may make
it painful for patients to eat or swallow food. Other patients may be
able to eat, but their cancer may prevent them from properly digesting
their food or absorbing the nutrients.

What malnutrition symptoms should patients watch for?

Malnutrition signs and symptoms include:

  • Losing more than 1 to 2 pounds a week
  • Cachexia, a
    condition marked by loss of appetite, weight loss, muscle loss and
    general weakness
  • A body mass index, or BMI, below 18.5
  • A
    decrease in activity or energy

What types of foods should a patient with malnutrition eat?

Patients should eat whatever they can. Try to focus on foods that
are not only high in calories but also high in nutrients. Nut butters,
avocadoes and dried fruits are all good options. High-calories
smoothies or protein drinks are another good way to get your nutrients
during cancer treatment.

Some patients may find it easier to eat several small meals
throughout the day, instead of three larger meals.    

In some cases, your doctor may recommend that a feeding tube to get
the nutrients you need.

What resources are available for patients suffering from malnutrition?

Studies show that an interdisciplinary approach
to treating malnutrition has the best results for patients.
  Consulting with a psychologist and a fatigue specialist can also
help patients cope with malnutrition.

So, if you or a patient you care for is suffering from malnutrition,
talk to your doctor about seeking help from a dietitian. If you’re an MD
patient, contact your clinic about visiting with any
of these specialists or schedule an appointment through myMDAnderson.

Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.