Cancer may upset your body’s metabolic balance, meaning your nutritional needs and your ability or desire to eat may change. You may lose weight from cancer itself or side effects of treatments as a result.
These changes and others may result in malnourishment, which may pose serious consequences for your quality of life, increase hospital stays, raise the risk of cancer recurrence and diminish your ability to tolerate and respond to cancer treatment.
A 2023 study published in the British medical journal The Lancet showed an association between severe malnutrition in cancer patients and poorer outcomes with an increased risk of earlier death. This latest research confirmed earlier findings and involved nearly 6,000 adult colorectal and gastric cancer patients in 75 countries. An earlier European Journal of Clinical Nutrition meta-analysis found similar links between malnutrition and poor outcomes.
While scientists say more research is needed into the complexities of malnutrition, weight loss and cancer outcomes, a 2015 study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that cancer patients who maintained a Body Mass Index (BMI) at or above 28—within the healthy range for weight—survived almost five times longer than those who lost 15 percent of their body weight and had a BMI of 22 or less.
“Nutrition status can affect a patient’s strength and energy to recover from chemo, radiation, or surgery,” says City of Hope Advanced Clinical Dietitian Kara Sonntag. “It may also compromise their immune system making them more susceptible to infections. In addition, muscle loss can result in weakness and fatigue, leading to further decreases in intake, which becomes a challenging cycle to break.”
The key is early identification and promptly addressing malnutrition and its underlying cause, Sonntag says, adding that one of the most damaging consequences of malnutrition is a delay in cancer treatment. “I always tell my patients, ‘If you can’t eat; we can’t treat,’” she says.
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