Cancer patients often eat less food than they did before getting sick as a result of the effects of the disease and the treatments used to fight it. Not surprisingly, though, according to experts at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) cancer-associated malnutrition not only has a negative impact on quality of life, but it also negatively impacts a patients’ response to therapy, increasing the risk of complications and shortening survival time.
Many cancer patients – especially those battling lung, pancreatic, gastric, colon, or head and neck cancer – are susceptible to this significant weight loss as a result of tumor burden causing malnutrition. And the consequences can be serious.
Known medically as cancer cachexia, this severe form of malnutrition is characterized by progressive, involuntary weight loss depleting lean body mass and muscle tissue. Left untreated, patients will eventually waste away.
“Quite simply, the bodies of cancer patients suffering from cachexia are using up calories faster than they are able to take them in,” said Danielle Bach, registered dietician at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America Western Regional Medical Center.
Some patients might have fluid building up around the stomach suppressing hunger. Their stomachs feel full sooner, so they stop taking in the amount of food their body really needs. For other patients, taste changes due to medication result in a decreased desire to eat.
“The implications of reduced food intake can have a direct impact on the patients’ overall treatment program,” said Bach.
According to several research studies, losing as little as five percent of a patients’ weight within a one-month period could be a risk to the patients’ ability to tolerate treatment and, therefore, the treatment program should be delayed. Other studies have shown that losing 10 percent of a patients’ overall weight from the date of diagnosis through treatment can also put the patient at risk.
Weight gain isn’t always the goal, however. In hormone sensitive cancers, for instance, like prostate cancer and most types of breast cancer, weight loss helps in the prevention of recurrence.
“Weight loss and weight gain goals are specific for each cancer patient’s case, so weight gain isn’t necessarily recommended for everyone with cancer,” said Bach.
CTCA has several tips to help patients maintain their weight without stuffing themselves full of sugary cookies or decadent holiday chocolates.
• Eating smaller meals more frequently. As long as patients are getting the recommended calories per day, it doesn’t matter how many meals they eat.
• Consider smoothies or nutrition supplement drinks to get the recommended daily calories. Most people don’t feel full as quickly when they are drinking calories versus eating them. Nutrition supplement drinks can also be used as the milk base in smoothies to provide more variety for those experiencing taste fatigue.
• Add nuts, seeds, and dried fruits to desserts, salads, or breads.
• Nut butters or avocado are great to add to smoothies or spread on bread.
• Gravies and sauces can add calories, as well as protein powders, granola, olive oil and vegetable oils.
• Drink water in between meals so that less volume in the stomach is taken up during mealtime, leaving more room for food to be eaten.
“Last but certainly not least, never underestimate the power of exercise,” said Bach. “For any cancer patients that get hungry quickly, I always recommend walking 30 minutes prior to eating a meal as the exercise can help increase their hunger.”
Additional healthy eating tips from Bach and CTCA include the following.
In addition to providing patients with supportive care that includes nutrition guidance, CTCA also provides state-of-the-art technologies and treatment options, naturopathic consultation, acupuncture, massage, physical therapy, occupational therapy and more.