Malnutrition: A Leading Cause of Death in Cancer Patients

The benefits of good nutrition during cancer treatment include protection against loss of muscle and bone, fewer side effects from treatment, improved digestion, and prevention of malnutrition. The latter point, in particular, is of utmost importance, since more than 80 percent of cancer patients receiving combined treatments — chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery — experience unintended weight loss and malnutrition. Furthermore, according to the National Cancer Institute, malnutrition is responsible for 1 in 5 cancer-related deaths.

Let us discuss “what is malnutrition?”, how to recognize the symptoms of malnutrition in cancer patients, and how to prevent this life-threatening side effect.

Link Between Cancer and Malnutrition

The ability to ingest, digest, absorb, and metabolize nutrients properly are essential to our overall health and well-being. Cancer and many of the conventional treatments used to address it may interfere with these steps, which can lead to malnutrition.

There are two main types of malnutrition:

  • Undernutrition is what most people think of when they hear the word “malnutrition.” It causes unintended weight loss due to inadequate amounts of calories and protein in the body. Undernutrition often occurs in patients with lung cancer, gastrointestinal cancer, head and neck cancers, and any form of advanced cancer.
  • Overnutrition or obesity is another sign of malnutrition associated with increased risk for 13 types of cancer, as well as poor outcomes from cancer treatment.

Suffering from either type of malnutrition greatly compromises a patient’s quality of life.

Effects of Malnutrition

Malnourished cancer patients may experience the following:

  • Higher risk of side effects from radiation therapy and chemotherapy.
  • More and longer hospitalizations.
  • Increased risk for complications during surgery.
  • Negative effects on immune function, which boosts the risk of infection.
  • Intolerance to cancer treatment, which can delay or suspend treatment entirely.
  • Declining health and higher cost of care.

Causes of Malnutrition

Malnutrition can result from:

  • Cancer treatment side effects, including mouth sores, changes in taste, nausea, diarrhea, and difficulty swallowing.
  • Changes in digestion or metabolism due to cancer, such as blockage of the digestive tract because of a tumor, as well as compounds produced as a direct result of cancer that can cause loss of appetite, muscle, and physical function.
  • Unhealthy dietary changes that may lead to an eating disorder.
  • Depression and anxiety are associated with a cancer diagnosis, which can reduce motivation to eat.

How to Recognize Malnutrition in Cancer Patients 

The most obvious symptoms of malnutrition in cancer patients are unintended weight loss or weight gain. Changes in body composition — wherein the weight stays the same, but the muscle mass is lost — is also a crucial indicator.

The other signs of malnutrition include:

  • Strength depletion and loss of physical function
  • Changes in the hair, skin, or nails, such as becoming fragile or breaking easily
  • Changes in the oral cavity (mouth), including cracks on the sides of the mouth, or inflammation of the gums and tongue
  • Muscle loss, which squaring of the shoulders or visible loss of muscle in the face can signal
  • Unexplainable or worsening fatigue

How Cancer Patients Can Prevent Malnutrition

There are several ways to prevent or manage malnutrition:

  • Balance the quantity of food with quality. If you fail to consume enough “fuel,” then your body will have to collect nutrients from its internal storage of protein from muscle. Thus, try to incorporate healthy, protein-rich, and high-calorie foods into your diet, such as beans, nuts or nut butter, and avocados.
  • Eat 20 to 30 grams of protein, about three times a day. One chicken breast or a slice of fatty fish around the size of a deck of cards will provide the amount of protein your body needs to boost muscle health.
  • Eat smaller and more frequent meals to help your appetite and weight improve. This tip will help your body absorb the nutrients it needs without feeling like you overate, which is especially difficult to manage if you suffer from nausea and feeling full too quickly.
  • Drink some of your calories. Homemade smoothies and shakes are not only delicious, but they are also quite satisfying. Try these 12 Immune-Boosting Smoothies to Keep Your Body Strong
  • Drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration. Strive to drink eight glasses of water each day. If water is unappealing to you, substitute some of the glasses with unsweetened juices, broth, or the homemade smoothies we recommended above.
  • If possible, get up and exercise. Maintaining a healthy weight is crucial to keep you strong throughout cancer treatment. Light exercise, such as walking, is an excellent place to start. However, always consult your cancer care team before starting any exercise regimen. Physical activities can stimulate your appetite, as well as help maintain or rebuild muscle.
  • Monitor your diet by using an app or keeping a food log. Record everything you eat, the portions, and how you feel at the time of consumption. Monitoring your diet will help you review your eating patterns and determine where you can increase or reduce calories, as needed. Moreover, sharing your log with your doctors can help them give you additional nutritional tips, which can further help you meet your goals.
  • Discuss the supplements you take with your healthcare provider. Some cancer patients who take supplements during treatment do not share this important information with their oncologist. It is important to discuss all supplements with your healthcare team, as some supplements may interfere with the effect of cancer therapies and drugs. If you are deficient in vitamins and minerals, or if you are at risk for deficiencies, your doctor can help you find the right supplements to take.

Discuss Malnutrition With Your Cancer Care Team

If you are experiencing any symptoms of malnutrition or believe you are malnourished, it is best to talk to your oncologist or registered dietitian about this. Your healthcare team should be able to evaluate your treatment program, talk about your personal health goals, and devise a nutrition plan that meets your specific dietary needs. However, keep in mind that based on the severity of malnutrition and the current state of your digestive tract, you may require intravenous feeding. Learn more about when a feeding tube becomes necessary.

Here at New Hope Unlimited, making sure that the body is well-nourished is at the forefront of our treatment programs. Call us today at 480-757-6573 if you are looking for a center that prioritizes nutrition and specializes in non-invasive cancer therapies.

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