Weight loss after head and neck radiotherapy | Cancer Research UK
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Weight loss after head and neck radiotherapy

Nurse and patients talking about cancer

Find out how to cope when radiotherapy to your head or neck makes you lose weight. There is information about


Why you may lose weight

Radiotherapy to your head and neck area can make you lose weight because you may have

  • A sore or dry mouth
  • A poor appetite
  • Taste changes due to treatment
  • Difficulty swallowing due to soreness or swelling in your throat

These effects might be temporary and gradually go back to normal after a few months when the treatment ends. But for some people the effects may be permanent. There are things you can do to help keep your weight up though.


Coping with weight loss

It's important to eat and drink as well as you can but don't worry too much if you can't eat a lot during the treatment period. Your doctor, specialist nurse or dietitian can prescribe nutritional supplements, such as high calorie drinks, to keep up your calories until your mouth feels better. Remember to drink plenty of other fluids too.

Ask the radiotherapy staff or the hospital dietitian what you should eat and drink to stay as healthy as possible. Try not to drink alcohol (especially spirits) or smoke because this can make your mouth and throat very sore.

Talk to your radiographers or the nursing staff if you are having problems eating or drinking. They might refer you to a dietitian for advice.

If your throat is very sore and eating and drinking is painful, you may need to have strong painkillers and one of the following

  • Liquid feed through a drip into a vein or a tube down your nose to your stomach
  • A feeding tube put into your stomach through the skin and muscle of the abdomen (called a percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy – PEG tube)

Your radiotherapy doctor (clinical oncologist) might stop your treatment for a while to allow you to recover but this is rare.


Where to get more information

Find out about

Ways to maintain your weight

Coping physically with cancer

Books about eating and drinking

External radiotherapy

Internal radiotherapy

Percutaneous Endoscopic Gastrostomy feeding – PEG tube

For general information and support

Contact the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040. The lines are open 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.

Share experiences on our online forum – Cancer Chat.

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Updated: 14 March 2016