Weight loss

How does weight loss affect cancer patients?

Patients undergoing cancer treatment may have difficulty maintaining weight. Not only does this affect energy levels, it also signifies an inadequate nutrient supply to support normal cellular processes, leading to possible symptoms that affect quality of life and require treatment interruptions. An integrative approach to addressing weight loss may alleviate multiple symptoms. Patients may experience several symptoms that may lead to decreased caloric intake and, ultimately, weight loss, including:

How likely are cancer patients to experience weight loss?

According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, around 40 percent of people have unexplained weight loss when first diagnosed with cancer, and up to 80 percent of people with advanced cancer have weight loss and muscle loss.

How may integrative care help?

Several recommendations may help keep patients strong by providing the nutrients needed to tolerate and recover from treatment. A stronger body also heals more quickly and effectively.

The supportive care services that may be recommended include: 

Nutritional support

Dietitians may provide patients with tools and knowledge to help them maintain healthy nutritional intake before, during and after cancer treatment. Ingesting the proper amount of daily nutrients may provide these benefits:

  • Support immune function
  • Preserve lean body mass
  • Rebuild body tissue
  • Increase energy and strength
  • Decrease risk of infection
  • Improve quality of life

Dietitians may recommend changes to a patient’s diet to address symptoms and weight loss, capitalizing especially on healthy, high-calorie, high-protein foods to ensure nutrient needs are met. When nutrient needs may not be met through food alone, dietitians may recommend oral nutrition supplements, which may include vitamins, mineral and proteins specific to the patient’s needs.

At Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), our first goal is to prevent malnutrition and help patients maintain a healthy nutritional balance throughout treatment. Dietitians regularly collaborate with the culinary team to tailor food offerings to meet specific patient needs. They also collaborate with patients’ oncologists to help improve nutrition intake and discuss the need for alternative forms of nutrition support if adequate oral intake is not possible.

For example, if weight loss is caused by a blockage or changes in the function of the gastrointestinal tract, a feeding tube or intravenous feedings may be necessary. Dietitians collaborate with the care team to help patients meet needs and learn to administer these types of feedings.

Learn more about nutritional support

Oncology rehabilitation

Addressing muscle loss is as important in counteracting weight loss as adding calories. Oncology rehabilitation includes physical and occupational therapy techniques that may help patients build lean muscle mass, manage their weight and improve or restore mobility. Physical therapists may help patients build strength and endurance with an individualized exercise program that combines range-of-motion training with light-resistance exercises. Occupational therapists help patients build strength so they may continue daily activities that are important to quality of life, such as dressing, showering and eating.

The oncology rehabilitation team at CTCA® is also responsible for assessing the safety of eating, given a patient’s status and treatment regimen. This involves recommending foods and textures that may be swallowed without disruption, while also collaborating as a team on what types of foods may be ingested, to address not just weight loss but malnutrition, too.

Learn more about oncology rehabilitation