How does malnutrition affect cancer patients?

For cancer patients, malnutrition may be caused by not getting enough calories, protein or other nutrients like vitamins and minerals, either because of the disease, its treatment or various other related complications that can affect appetite and how the body digests, absorbs and uses food. Being malnourished may make patients weak or drained. In some cases, it may lead to disruptions or delays in the treatments needed to fight cancer. Malnutrition may also lead to longer hospital stays. Another form of malnutrition involves the consumption of too many calories, which may lead to weight gain and excess weight. This may increase the risk of a cancer recurrence, secondary cancer or another chronic illness like heart disease or diabetes.

How likely are cancer patients to experience malnutrition?

The majority of cancer patients suffer from nutritional deficits. Up to 90 percent of patients with cancers of the gastrointestinal tract and 60 percent of those with lung cancer experience some degree of malnutrition. Research indicates that well-nourished patients tend to tolerate treatment better, have fewer complications and recuperate faster than patients who are malnourished. Because being overweight or obese affects two-thirds of the U.S. population, the imbalance created by consuming excess calories is also very common in cancer survivors.

How may integrative care help?

Maintaining nutritional support is important, especially for cancer patients. By combining traditional cancer treatments with supportive therapies, integrative cancer care may help manage the side effects of cancer, including malnutrition, and keep patients on track with their treatment regimens.

The supportive care services that may be recommended include:

Nutritional support

Individualized nutritional support provided by a dietitian can help patients obtain the nutrients needed to tolerate and recover from treatment and prevent or reverse malnutrition. Prior to and throughout the treatment course, dietitians assess patients’ nutritional status and address deficiencies through diet modification, education, dietary supplements and, in some cases, tube feeding or intravenous feeding. Adequate nutrition during cancer treatment may provide the following benefits:

  • Maintained body weight
  • Increased energy and strength
  • Maintained lean body mass
  • Improved ability to tolerate treatment
  • Improved quality of life
  • Decreased risk of infection

A dietitian may also help patients avoid gaining an unhealthy amount of weight during cancer treatment or losing weight after completion of therapy, by helping them set goals to address barriers to healthy eating and activity behaviors. This may help patients:

  • Lose excess body weight
  • Improve surgical outcomes
  • Experience fewer side effects from cancer therapies
  • Reduce their risk of a cancer recurrence, secondary cancer or other chronic illnesses like heart disease and diabetes

Learn more about nutritional support

Oncology rehabilitation

This wide range of treatments involves three disciplines: physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy. To combat malnutrition, speech therapists may assess patients’ ability to swallow food and collaborate with other members of the patients’ care team on a recommended list of foods with textures that are safe to eat and digest. Exercises prescribed through physical or occupational therapy may assist patients by increasing their activity, helping strike a healthy balance between physical fitness and proper nutrition. This may be particularly helpful with maintaining muscle mass and losing excess body fat to achieve and maintain a healthy body composition.

Learn more about oncology rehabilitation