On this page: What is malnutrition? | Why are cancer patients at risk of malnutrition? | How do you know if you are malnourished? | Why is malnutrition a problem in cancer patients? | Further information
Malnutrition in people with cancer occurs when you are eating less energy and protein than the amount your body needs. This can lead to unplanned weight loss and a reduction in body fat and muscle.
Compared to the rest of the population, people with cancer are at a higher risk of malnutrition. It is important to prevent malnutrition or identify it early, as malnutrition can affect how your body responds to your cancer treatment and your recovery.
Many factors can increase the risk of malnutrition when you have cancer, including:
Sometimes it is difficult to know if you are malnourished and changes in food intake and activity can be mistaken for other factors. Some signs to look out for include:
The list below shows some factors that contribute to malnutrition. These can also be signs that you have or are at risk of malnutrition.
Malnutrition can lead to a reduced response to cancer treatments, increased side effects and possibly reduced survival. It can increase your risk of infection and the time you spend in hospital. Malnutrition can also reduce your strength and quality of life.
Even if you are overweight, losing weight during your cancer treatment and recovery can increase your risk of malnutrition.
Eating well is therefore very important for your health before, during and after cancer treatments.
Malnutrition and weight loss can usually be prevented. It should not be considered an expected side effect from cancer or treatments.
Your doctor or nurse will regularly ask you questions about your weight and appetite to check your risk of malnutrition. A dietitian can determine whether you have malnutrition. They can work with you to ensure you are following an appropriate and balanced diet, and aim to avoid or minimise weight loss.
Your dietitian may suggest some dietary changes and provide you with information on:
There are no special diets or foods to include or avoid when you have cancer. It is important to ensure you include foods from all food groups. Your dietitian may suggest less focus on including lots of fruits and vegetables and recommend eating more snack foods, desserts, full cream dairy foods and eggs. These foods can help you meet your energy and protein needs.
This may be quite different to your normal eating patterns. In some situations, it is not possible to meet your nutritional needs through eating alone. Your dietitian and doctor may recommend the use of a feeding tube or intravenous nutrition to help.
It is important to let your doctor, dietitian or pharmacist know if you are taking any nutrition, vitamin or herbal supplements as they can sometimes interact with cancer treatments and medications.
An Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) can provide you with further information and advice on preventing or managing malnutrition. A referral can be made through your doctor or health service. The Dietitians Association of Australia (ph: 1800 812 942) can direct you to an APD in your local area.