Drugs That Stimulate the Appetite During Cancer Treatment

Cancer Patient Staring at Plate Full of Pills
Medication to Stimulate Appetite. Justin Paget / Getty Images

A decreased appetite and desire to eat is the biggest factor in unwanted weight loss during colorectal cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy. Weight loss can reduce your body's ability to heal and repair damaged tissues. Severe weight loss can even preclude your ability to continue cancer fighting treatment. 

There are several medications that can be used to stimulate the appetite when fighting cancer, but it is optimal to try non-pharmacological methods first to include:

  • Eating smaller meals more frequently
  • Keep finger foods on hand, such as cheese and crackers
  • Decreasing beverages during meal time
  • Increasing protein and fat intake
  • Increasing daily activity if possible

If you continue to lose weight despite your best efforts it might be time to discuss medications to stimulate the appetite with your oncologist. There are no over-the-counter medications available for this purpose -- you will need a doctor's prescription. 

Appetite stimulants are not indicated for every person and they do carry the risk of side effects. If you research the medications listed here, each one of them also carries the risk of causing nausea and vomiting, which is not the desired result when a loss of appetite is already present. 

Megace (megestrol acetate suspension)

A common appetite stimulant used during cancer treatment, Megace is a man-made version of the female hormone progesterone.

Usually prescribed as a liquid suspension, you might have to take the medication multiple times daily as ordered by your doctor. You should not take this medication if you are pregnant, nursing, or intend to become pregnant as it can harm your baby or unborn fetus. Likewise, a common side effect in women is irregular menses and bleeding.

Let your doctor know if you have a history of stroke or blood clots, as well. 

You may not have immediate results with this medication. Talk to your doctor if you have been taking it as prescribed without any perceivable increase in appetite after a few weeks.

Marinol (dronabinol)

Marinol is a man-made chemical cannabinoid, which is sometimes prescribed to elevate mood and appetite. This medication comes in pill form and should not be crushed or chewed. It can cause dizziness, confusion, and make you sleepy, so it is not a first choice if you are already suffering cancer fatigue. Discuss your allergies and current medications with your prescribing doctor, as this drug can interact with certain medications and should not be taken if you are allergic to sesame oil. Likewise, if marijuana is legal in your state -- it's an option you can discuss with your doctor as opposed to its synthetic reproduction -- Marinol.

Decadron (dexamethasone) 

Decadron is a corticosteroid that is used to treat inflammation and swelling, with the added benefit of increased appetite.

Unless otherwise instructed by your doctor, always take this medication with food as it can be hard on your stomach. Also let your doctor know if you are taking any prescribed blood thinners, such as Coumadin (warfarin) or Plavix (clopidogrel), as it can increase your chances of bruising and bleeding

Your doctor may elect not to prescribe a steroid if you have diabetes type I or II, as it can increase your blood sugars.

Reglan (metoclopramide)

Although this medication is not used to boost your appetite, it can assist if you are feeling full quickly and therefore not taking in enough calories to keep nourished. Reglan works by speeding up the movement of food through your digestive tract. One very serious potential side effect of this medication is the inability to control muscle movement called tardive dyskinesia. Talk to your doctor and pharmacist about any concerns you might have. 

Sources:

Jatoi, Aminah. (2006). Pharmacologic Therapy for the Cancer Anorexia/Weight Loss Syndrome: A Data-Driven, Practical Approach. The Journal of Supportive Oncology. Accessed online May 31, 2015.

Medline Plus. (n.d.). Dronabinol. Accessed online May 30, 2015.

National Cancer Institute. (n.d.). Overview of Nutrition in Cancer Care. Accessed online May 30, 2015.

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