Weight loss after head and neck radiotherapy
This page tells you about coping when radiotherapy to your head or neck makes you lose weight. There is information about
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 may be temporary and will 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.
It's important to keep up a healthy diet but don't worry too much if you can't eat a lot during the treatment period. Your doctor, specialist nurse or dietician 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 dietician 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.
If you are having problems eating or drinking, talk to your radiographers or the nursing staff. They may refer you to a dietician 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 tube down your nose to your stomach
- A feeding tube put into your stomach through the skin and muscle of the abdomen (percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy – PEG tube)
Very rarely, your radiotherapy doctor (clinical oncologist) may stop your treatment for a while to allow you to recover.
There is information about ways to maintain your weight in the section about coping physically with cancer. And there are books and booklets about diet for cancer patients in our head and neck cancer section, some of which are free.
There is also detailed information about the general side effects of radiotherapy. There are pages about other side effects of head and neck radiotherapy, including
You can phone the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. They will be happy to answer any questions that you have.
Our general organisations page gives details of people who can provide information about radiotherapy. Some organisations can put you in touch with a cancer support group. Our cancer and treatments reading list has information about books, leaflets and other resources about radiotherapy treatment.
If you want to find people to share experiences with online, you could use Cancer Chat, our online forum.
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