Cancer is an aggressive, unforgiving disease. Modern treatments for cancer have to be equally aggressive. Chemotherapy drugs are one of the most common treatments for cancer, but they are not without side effects. Patients often experience weight loss while battling cancer and undergoing chemotherapy. Extreme weight loss may complicate the recovery process, although healthcare professionals continue to discover ways to lessen the undesirable effects of cancer treatment.
Chemotherapy, also known as chemo, is a modern form of cancer treatment that uses potent drugs to attack cancer throughout the body. More than 100 such drugs exists as of publication, each tailored to certain types of cancer. Chemo drugs may cure cancer, or they may simply slow its growth while doctors prepare other treatments. Doctors often employ more than one chemo drug to treat cancer, a technique known as combination therapy.
Side Effects of Chemotherapy
The powerful drugs used in chemotherapy cause a wide variety of side effects. Sometimes these side effects are severe, but the benefits of slowing the cancer clearly outweigh the risks. Chemo drugs damage bone marrow, the body's blood cell factory. As a result, chemo patients often experience fatigue and pale skin. Hair loss is another typical side effect of chemotherapy. Nausea and vomiting are the most feared side effects of chemo, and indirectly contribute to weight loss in people undergoing treatment. As food intake aggravates feelings of nausea, patients suffer a steady loss of appetite.
Weight Loss and Chemotherapy
Weight loss is one of the most common side effects of chemotherapy. The nausea and vomiting caused by many of the drugs dampen a patient's appetite. Some forms of chemotherapy also make it difficult to swallow. Because chemotherapy damages healthy cells along with cancer cells, patients sometimes experience loss of muscle mass, blood cells and other tissues. Low energy levels contribute to poor appetite which in turn leads to weight loss.
Managing Weight Loss
Chemotherapy patients may alleviate their side effects, including weight loss, through a variety of techniques. Hydration is an important part of nutrition, and patients should drink at least six servings of liquid each day. If eating is difficult, add liquids that contain caloric value such as fruit juices and protein shakes. Eating several smaller meals may also be easier than three large meals. If your appetite has diminished, try eating healthy snacks like yogurt, trail mix, applesauce or gelatin. Unpleasant sensations of nausea can also be reduced with special drugs called anti-emetics.
- American Cancer Society: Treatments and Side Effects: Understanding Chemotherapy: A Guide for Patients and Families
- NetWellness Consumer Health Information: Cancer; Nutrition During Chemotherapy and/or Radiation Treatment
- Emory University: Winship Cancer Institute: Survivorship: Physical Effects
- National Cancer Institute: What is Cancer?