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Types of diet problems

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This page tells you about the side effects of cancer and its treatments that make it difficult to eat enough and stay at a healthy weight. There is information on

 

Eating problems with cancer

Not everyone with cancer has diet problems. For many people, any problems with eating or drinking are temporary and will disappear once treatment has finished. But if you have advanced cancer some of these problems can be difficult to get rid of or control. How severe they become will depend on

  • The type of cancer you have
  • The type of treatment you are having
  • Your age and general health

Your type of cancer can affect how likely it is that you will have digestive problems. Symptoms of the cancer or the side effects of treatment may sometimes make it difficult to eat - these include

The links above take you to pages about each of these effects. Below is information about other effects that can make it difficult to eat.

 

Loss of appetite (anorexia)

Doctors call loss of appetite 'anorexia'. This is very different to the psychiatric condition 'anorexia nervosa' - it's not the same thing at all.

Anorexia is common in people with cancer. It can happen in the early stages of your disease or much later if the cancer grows and spreads to other parts of your body. As many as 1 in 4 people diagnosed with cancer have loss of appetite. For people with advanced cancer, up to 9 out of 10 people (90%) lose their appetite to some extent.

There may be a particular cause for your loss of appetite. Or it may just be that you are feeling too tired or fed up to bother eating much.

 

Weight loss

This is weight loss when you are not trying to. It is a very  common symptom in people with cancer. It may be one of the reasons you first go to the doctor. There are many causes of weight loss, many of which can be treated.

Losing weight is often associated with loss of appetite. But this is not the only cause. You may be eating normally but still losing weight. Your body may not be absorbing all the fat, protein and carbohydrate from the food you eat. Or your body may be burning up calories faster than normal. Continuous weight loss can be very upsetting and worrying. It can be a constant reminder of your illness and affect how you feel about yourself.

How much weight you lose can depend on the type of cancer you have. About 6 out of 10 people (60%) with lung cancer and 8 out of 10 people (80%) with stomach cancer, pancreatic cancer or oesophageal cancer have lost a significant amount of weight by the time they are diagnosed. People with breast cancer or prostate cancer, for example, don't tend to have lost weight at diagnosis. We have a section on causes of weight loss.

If you are not dieting and you lose more than 5% of your normal weight in 1 month, or 10% in 6 months, your doctor will want to find out the cause. For example, if you normally weigh 10 stone (63.5 kg) and lose half a stone (3kg) in a month, or a stone (6kg) in 6 months that would need investigating. This may not seem like a lot of weight but if you continue to lose weight at this rate it could become a serious problem.

 

Cachexia (wasting syndrome)

You may also hear this called ‘wasting syndrome’ or ‘anorexia cachexia syndrome’. Up to 6 out of 10 people (60%) with advanced cancer develop some degree of cachexia.

Cachexia (kak-ex-ee-a) comes from the Greek word kakos meaning 'bad' and hexis meaning 'condition'. Anorexia just means loss of appetite and is often associated with cachexia, but not always. Cachexia is more than simply loss of appetite though. It is a very complex problem involving changes in the way your body normally uses protein, carbohydrate, and fat. It leads to many problems including muscle wasting.

It isn’t usual to get cachexia with the early stages of cancer. Cachexia in advanced cancer can be very upsetting and make you feel very weak. It isn't just associated with cancer though. It is common in the advanced stages of other illnesses such as heart disease, HIV and kidney disease.

Cachexia seems to be more common in people with lung cancer or with cancers anywhere in the digestive system. The main symptoms are

  • Severe loss of weight, including loss of fat and muscle mass
  • Loss of appetite
  • Feeling sick (nausea)
  • Feeling full after eating small amounts
  • Anaemia (low red blood cells)
  • Weakness and fatigue

We don't know exactly what happens in cachexia, but scientists now think that the cancer releases chemicals into the blood that contribute to the loss of fat and muscle. These chemicals may make your metabolism speed up so that you use up calories faster. Because your body is using up energy faster than it is getting it, you can have severe weight loss even if you are eating normally. Losing muscle and fat can make it look as though you are ‘wasting away’. This can all be made worse because of the side effects of cancer treatment you are having.

Cachexia is very different to general weight loss. Cachexia cannot be completely reversed even if you feel like eating, try to eat more or are fed through a tube. People suffering from cachexia do not seem to feel hungry.

 

Mouth and throat problems

Cancer treatments such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy can make your mouth very sore, which can make it very difficult to eat. There is information about dealing with a sore mouth due to chemotherapy in the cancer drugs section. We have information about swallowing problems due to radiotherapy in the head and neck radiotherapy side effects section.

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Updated: 24 February 2014