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What is abnormal weight loss?
Abnormal weight loss is common among cancer patients. It may be the first visible sign of the disease. In fact, 40% of people had unexplained weight loss when they were first diagnosed with cancer.
Doctors refer to a weight loss syndrome called “cachexia,” which is characterized by increased metabolism, loss of skeletal muscle, fatigue, anorexia, and decreased quality of life. Cachexia is common in patients with incurable cancer.
How bad is my weight loss?
Your “baseline” weight is the weight right before starting a cancer treatment. To calculate how much weight (in percent) that you have lost, take your weight from today, divide it by your baseline weight and then multiply it with 100.
Mild: 5 to 10% weight loss from baseline. You do not necessarily need medical treatments for this amount of weight loss, but it is important to follow guidance in the Mild Weight Loss section below.
Moderate: 10 to 20% weight loss from baseline. Nutritional support like special diet, nutritional supplements, or dietician consultation are required for this amount of weight loss.
Severe: More than 20% decrease from baseline; tube feeding or Total Parenteral Nutrition is indicated. It is a form of nutritional support given via the bloodstream, intravenously with an IV pump. It administers proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals.
How to manage mild abnormal weight loss?
- Increase the frequency of the food you eat. Eat frequent small meals throughout the day. For example, eating small amounts every 3 hours may be a more successful strategy to increasing your food intake.
- Consider consulting a registered dietitian (RD) or nutritionist for nutrition counseling. It will help you to maintain a healthy weight and get the important nutrients you need. Ask your health care team for a referral.
- Prior to chemotherapy, eat light meals and avoid fatty or protein-rich foods. This may prevent developing a dislike of these foods if nausea or vomiting occurs.
- Keep a record of what, when, and how much you eat, including how you feel during and after eating. For example, do you have nausea? Feel full quickly? Notice changes in taste? Sharing this information with your health care team may help with decisions about changing your diet.
How to manage moderate and severe abnormal weight loss?
Consult the physician if you have lost more than 5 percent of body weight or 10 pounds without trying in a period of 6 to 12 months. It is especially important if you have other symptoms (appetite loss (anorexia), pain, constipation) too.
What are the causes?
Abnormal weight loss often starts with appetite loss or anorexia. Underlying cancer and cancer treatment-related side effects that may cause appetite loss.
- Changes in metabolism
- Nausea and Vomiting (Emesis)
- Mucositis (Mouth sore)
- Chewing problem
- Dysphagia (Painful swallowing)
- Abnormal taste (Dysgeusia)
- Pain (Generalized)
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