Losing Weight on Chemo

The very treatment designed to kill cancer cells can also impact healthy cells in your digestive tract leading to unwanted weight loss. Chemotherapy drugs find and destroy rapidly dividing cells to include cancer cells as well as those that make up your skin, hair, and the tissues in your mouth, stomach and intestines. Even if a little weight loss sounds good to you, you don't want to start during cancer treatment.

This is the time your body most needs nutrition, not the deprivation of it.

Colon Cancer Can Change How Your Body Uses Food

Cancers of the gastrointestinal tract can impair your body's ability to absorb and use the nutrients found in food. Paired with the different treatments for colorectal cancer, this can compound your problem and make malnutrition a real threat. For instance, if you've had bowel surgery your body will require even more calories than normal to help repair and heal tissues.

Chemotherapy Can Reduce Your Appetite

The side effects of chemotherapy can preclude your desire to eat. These effects do not impact everyone in the same way, nor do the side effects of the drugs impact every person. However, if you are suffering from any of the following side effects food becomes less appetizing: 

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Fatigue 
  • Mouth sores 
  • Change in taste
  • Early satiety (feeling full quickly)

    A lack of the desire to eat is the most common reason people lose weight during chemo. There are medications that can help with the nausea and vomiting, as well as the diarrhea and constipation. There are even medications available to help boost your appetite and regulate your digestive processes. Talk to your doctor about your symptoms, especially if specific symptoms are ruining  your appetite.


    Impacts of Malnourishment

    Although they have a negative connotation in society, calories are not bad. They are the equivalent of gas in your tank -- calories provide energy and nutrition for tissue growth and repair during chemotherapy. They also fuel your immune system so that it can continue to protect you from unwanted colds and viruses during your treatment. 

    When your body does not get the calories that it needs to heal and repair, it has a protective mechanism that allows it to start breaking down your healthy muscle tissue for energy. This can further compound the weakness and fatigue that you may already be experiencing. 

    If you are losing weight rapidly your doctor might decide to place your chemo on hold. This is one reason why your oncologist checks your blood counts frequently during treatment; he or she is not going to continue offering treatment if you're not tolerating it. 

    Snacking Smart to Boost Calories

    If you already suffer decreased appetite, a big, hot meal on your plate will probably further curb it.

    Try eating smaller, more frequent meals every few hours. Consider packing in as much protein as you can for these "snacks" eating foods such as:

    • Cheese and crackers
    • Milkshakes or ice cream
    • Peanut butter or cream cheese on vegetables
    • Protein enriched puddings

    You can also taste test commercial meal replacement shakes and enjoy those as snacks in between meals, although they can be pricey. If the odor of foods is off putting consider switching to cool or cold meals for a while, as they are less odiferous. 

    Tube Feedings and Parental Nutrition

    If you cannot eat food by mouth, which is preferred, you have the option to elect getting nourishment through a tube feeding or intravenously. Tube feedings can be delivered through a small tube placed into your stomach via your nose or through a tube placed surgically into your small intestine called a gastrostomy tube. If you will not be able to eat for a long time, your doctor might encourage intravenous feedings, which are called parental nutrition and can be administered through a catheter placed in your upper arm or chest. 


    National Cancer Institute. (n.d.). Nutrition in Cancer Care. Accessed online May 29, 2015.

    National Cancer Institute. (n.d.). Eating Hints: Before, After and During Cancer Treatment. Accessed online May 28, 2015.

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