Malnutrition and weight loss
Many of the side effects of head and neck cancer treatment may make eating difficult, which can cause you to lose weight. Even a small drop in your weight (e.g. 3–4 kg), especially over a short period of time, may put you at risk of malnutrition. You can be malnourished even if you are overweight.
Unplanned weight loss and malnutrition can reduce your strength, energy and quality of life. This can affect how you respond to treatment, and side effects may be more severe and your recovery slower. During treatment and recovery, a dietitian can assess whether a feeding tube will help you maintain or gain weight.
For more on this, see Nutrition and cancer.
How to prevent unplanned weight loss
- Treat food like medicine: something you have to have so you can feel better.
- Eat 5–6 small meals a day rather than three large ones.
- Include high-energy and high-protein foods at every meal or snack. For example, drink milk rather than water and choose cheese and biscuits over lollies.
- Try ready-to-use nutritional supplement drinks from supermarkets and pharmacies (e.g. Sustagen, Ensure, Resource).
- If it is hard to swallow fluids without choking, talk to a speech pathologist for advice on thickening the supplement drink. (Thicker fluids are easier to control in your mouth so there is less chance of them going down the wrong way.)
- Keep a selection of snacks handy, e.g. in your bag or car.
- Talk to your doctor, nurse or dietitian if you are losing weight, or if you have pain or discomfort when swallowing food or drink.
Podcast: Appetite Loss and Nausea
Download a PDF booklet on this topic.
A/Prof Richard Gallagher, Head and Neck Surgeon, Director of Cancer Services and Head and Neck Cancer Services, St Vincent’s Health Network, NSW; Dr Sophie Beaumont, Head of Dental Oncology, Dental Practitioner, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Dr Bena Brown, Speech Pathologist, Princess Alexandra Hospital, and Senior Research Fellow, Menzies School of Health Research, QLD; Dr Teresa Brown, Assistant Director, Nutrition and Dietetics, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, QLD; Lisa Castle-Burns, Head and Neck Cancer Specialist Nurse, Canberra Region Cancer Centre, The Canberra Hospital, ACT; A/Prof Ben Chua, Radiation Oncologist, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, GenesisCare Rockhampton and Brisbane, QLD; Elaine Cook, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria; Dr Andrew Foreman, Specialist Ear, Nose and Throat Surgeon, Royal Adelaide Hospital, SA; Tony Houey, Consumer; Dr Annette Lim, Medical Oncologist and Clinician Researcher – Head and Neck and Non-melanoma Skin Cancer, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and The University of Melbourne, VIC; Paula Macleod, Head, Neck and Thyroid Cancer Nurse Coordinator, Northern Sydney Cancer Centre, Royal North Shore Hospital, NSW; Dr Aoife McGarvey, Physiotherapist and Accredited Lymphoedema Practitioner, Physio Living, Newcastle, NSW; Rick Pointon, Consumer; Teresa Simpson Senior Clinician, Psycho-Oncology Social Work Service, Cancer Therapy Centre, Liverpool Hospital, NSW.
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Nutrition and cancer
Learn about nutrition, and suggest tips for eating well during and after cancer treatment.