For About and By Caregivers
Tackling Cancer & Weight Loss

By Hilary Wright, Staff Writer


There are many reasons people with cancer lose weight.  Causes include depression, fatigue, pain, altered taste perception, side effects of treatment, or obstruction of the gastrointestinal tract. Often consumption of a high calorie, high protein, beverage may help reverse weight loss.

Psychological distress also can play a major role in weight loss. The anxiety that comes with receiving a diagnosis of cancer, the intensified feelings of anxiety and depression, and the possibility of pain, all can cause weight loss. Once a particular psychological issue is addressed, some of the weight loss may be reversed.

Caregivers should try to serve a variety of foods, since lots of nutrients from many different sources are required to meet physical and nutritional needs. Caregivers can help people with cancer create a flexible, personalized nutritional plan that will be easy to adapt to their ever-changing needs. Following are guidelines to help create the basis for a sound, nutritional program.

Adding Calories

There are many ways to add calories, and eating high calorie foods is a good place to start. Caregivers and people with cancer can enjoy adding the following to increase calorie intake:

  • Melt margarine onto hot foods such as toast, soups, vegetables, cooked cereals, rice and soft-boiled eggs.
  • Choose mayonnaise instead of salad dressing for use in meat salads, in deviled eggs and on lettuce.
  • Serve peanut butter - also high in protein - with an apple, banana, or pear, or spread it on a sandwich with mayonnaise.
  • Top puddings, pies, hot chocolate, fruit, gelatin and other desserts with whipped cream. Cook with heavy cream instead of milk.
  • Sprinkle nuts or seeds on vegetables, salads, and pasta, or sprinkle on desserts such as fruits, ice cream, pudding and custard.

Adding Protein

It can be extremely beneficial for a person with cancer to receive extra protein, especially if they are healing after surgery. The following suggestions will help provide more healing proteins and extra calories to the diet:

  • Add nonfat dry milk or powdered protein supplements, like soy protein shakes, to regular milk. Also, they can be added to sauces and gravies or used for breading meat, fish or poultry.
  • Cook cereals with milk instead of water.
  • Use milk, half-and-half and evaporated milk when making instant cocoa, canned soups, mashed potatoes, and puddings.
  • Add extra ice cream to milkshakes.
  • Add small pieces of meat, fish or poultry to soups and to vegetable, noodle and rice casseroles.
  • Add grated cheese to cream sauces, casseroles, or vegetables.
  • Melt sliced cheese over hot apple pie.
  • Combine cottage cheese and cream cheese with fruit.
  • Use cream cheese and margarine on hot bread or rolls.
  • Blend finely chopped hard-boiled eggs into sauces, gravies, chopped meats, or salad dressings or sprinkle over salads.

Loss of Appetite

Sometimes medical treatments and therapies can cause a decrease in appetite. Here are some ways that caregivers can help make favorite dishes appealing again:

  • Try seasonings such as lemon juice, mint, basil and other herbs and spices to perk up the taste and smell of food.
  • Add sugar and salt to foods, if intake is not restricted.
  • Serve food attractively and in a pleasing atmosphere.
  • Vary the colors of foods on the plate and use garnishes such as lemon or lime wedges.
  • Colorful place settings and soft background music can help make mealtimes more enjoyable, too.
  • Use a therapeutic nutritional beverage such to help reverse the metabolic changes that can affect appetite.
  • Walk the dog or take an early-evening stroll before eating.
  • Light exercise may help stimulate the appetite.
  • Plan the biggest meal of the day when a person with cancer is most hungry, even if thatís early in the day.
  • Serve foods a loved one enjoys whenever they feel like eating, even if itís not a usual meal time.

Overcoming Vomiting and Nausea

If a person with cancer is vomiting, has nausea, or feels too full to eat, try these tips:

  • Drink liquids an hour before or after eating to keep from filling up quickly during meals.
  • Eat high-carbohydrate foods such as crackers and toast if troubled by nausea. They move through the stomach quickly and may be particularly helpful if eaten first thing in the morning.
  • Eat slowly and chew food thoroughly.  
  • Rest after eating. Activity can slow digestion and may cause discomfort.
  • Food smells cause nausea. Keep a person with cancer out of the kitchen while meals are prepared; even have them leave the house, if possible. Cold foods tend to have fewer odors, so try serving more dairy products, chicken or tuna salad sandwiches, cold soups and cool desserts with fruit.

Change of Taste and Smell

Some therapies and treatments can change the way food tastes and smells. Here are some tips that may help alleviate these symptoms:

  • Serve food cold or at room temperature to decrease its smell and taste.
  • Choose foods that provide texture and crunch to help give a real sense of eating that is not provided by soft, bland foods.
  • Use seasonings and condiments such as salt, lemon juice, catsup, pickles and olives that donít rely on smell to enhance food.
  • Avoid the area where food is being prepared, as odors may increase the chance for nausea.
  • Eat several small meals during the day rather than three large ones.

Soothing Mouths and Throats

Some treatments can make mouths and throats uncomfortable, dry and sore. Here are some tips that may help to eliminate some of these problems:

  • Try moist and liquid foods such as soups and stews. They may be easier to chew and swallow.
  • Try soft, cold foods such as ice cream, frozen fruit-juice bars, watermelon and grapes. They may feel and taste better than other foods.
  • Drink through a straw to make swallowing easier.
  • Avoid using spices.
  • Avoid carbonated beverages and highly acidic foods, like citrus juices and tomatoes.
  • Try fruit juices such as apple and nectar instead.

Caregivers have an opportunity to play an active role in helping people with cancer. By understanding the importance of nutrition in the treatment of cancer, and applying useful strategies and tips, caregivers can help people with cancer regain weight and reclaim quality of life.


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