Nutrition and advanced cancer

Advanced cancer means the cancer has spread to other areas of the body from where it started.

Problems with eating and drinking may arise or intensify when the cancer is advanced. It’s common for people with advanced cancer to lose their appetite. This often leads to weight loss and malnutrition. By controlling nutrition-related symptoms, quality of life can be maintained. During this time, it’s okay to focus on eating foods you enjoy. Soft food and clear liquids may be easier to digest.

Nausea and vomiting

Many people with advanced cancer have problems with chronic nausea and vomiting. Nausea and vomiting may be caused by pain medicines, cancer growth, blockage of the bowel (see below) or slower digestion. Feeling tired or anxious may make the nausea worse. See suggestions that may help reduce nausea and vomiting.

Mouth problems

People with advanced cancer may have a dry mouth or a sore mouth and throat. These problems may be caused by drinking less or by some types of treatment. See ways to ease a dry mouth. If chewing and swallowing become difficult, it may be necessary to introduce a texture-modified diet. See a description of the different food textures and sample menus.

Blockage in the bowel

Surgery in the abdominal area sometimes causes the bowel to become blocked (bowel obstruction). This can also happen if the cancer comes back. Because waste matter (faeces) cannot pass through the bowel easily, symptoms may include feeling sick, vomiting, or abdominal discomfort and pain.

To relieve symptoms, you may have a small tube (stent) put in that helps keep the bowel open. The stent is inserted through the rectum using a flexible tube called an endoscope.


Many people with advanced cancer develop wasting syndrome (cachexia). This means the body isn’t using protein, carbohydrates and fats properly. Symptoms include:

  • severe loss of weight, including loss of fat and muscle mass
  • feeling sick (nausea)
  • feeling full after eating small amounts
  • anaemia
  • weakness and fatigue.

Your doctor or dietitian will discuss ways to control cachexia. They may suggest a diet high in energy and protein, nutritional supplements, or medicines such as appetite stimulants. If you continue to have problems maintaining your nutrition, your treating team may recommend feeding via a tube in your nose or stomach (enteral nutrition) or directly into the bloodstream through a thin tube inserted into a vein (parenteral nutrition).

To find out more see Living with Advanced Cancer or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.

Reviewed by: Amber Kelaart, Senior Dietitian, Nutrition & Speech Pathology Department, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Monica Conway, Assistant Nurse Manager, Cancer Information and Support Service, Cancer Council Victoria, VIC; Anne Finch, LiveLighter Project Officer, Cancer Council Western Australia, WA; Clare Hughes, Nutrition Program Manager, Cancer Council NSW, NSW; Tanya King, Senior Oncology Dietitian, Coastal Cancer Care, Sunshine Coast University Private Hospital, QLD; Tony Southwell, Consumer; Klara Suessenbach, Health Promotion Officer, Cancer Council Tasmania, TAS.


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