Malnutrition and weight loss
Many of the side effects discussed here may make eating difficult, which can cause you to lose weight. Even a small drop in your weight (e.g. 3–4 kg), particularly over a short period of time, may put you at risk of malnutrition. You can be malnourished even if you are overweight.
Significant 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 in order to feel better.
- Eat 5–6 small meals rather than three large ones each day.
- 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. Examples include Sustagen, Ensure and Resource. Many pharmacies and supermarkets sell these specially formulated drinks. You don’t need a prescription.
- If you are having trouble swallowing, talk to a speech pathologist for advice on thickening the supplement.
- 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.
A/Prof David Wiesenfeld, Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon, Director, Head and Neck Tumour Stream, The Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre at Melbourne Health, VIC; Alan Bradbury, Consumer; Dr Ben Britton, Senior Clinical and Health Psychologist, John Hunter Hospital, NSW; Dr Madhavi Chilkuri, Radiation Oncologist, Townsville Cancer Centre, The Townsville Hospital, QLD; Jedda Clune, Senior Dietitian (Head and Neck Cancer), Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, WA; Dr Fiona Day, Staff Specialist, Medical Oncology, Calvary Mater Newcastle, and Conjoint Senior Lecturer, The University of Newcastle, NSW; Dr Ben Dixon, ENT, Head and Neck Surgeon, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, VIC; Emma Hair, Senior Social Worker, St George Hospital, NSW; Rosemerry Hodgkin, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Kara Hutchinson, Head and Neck Cancer Nurse Coordinator, St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, VIC; A/Prof Julia Maclean, Speech Pathologist, St George Hospital, NSW; Prof Jane Ussher, Chair, Women’s Health Psychology, Translational Health Research Institute (THRI), School of Medicine, Western Sydney University, NSW; Andrea Wong, Physiotherapist, St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, VIC. We also thank the health professionals, consumers and editorial teams who have worked on previous editions of this title.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.
Click below to download a PDF booklet on this topic.
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