Heather Hanks
Written by Heather Hanks

Reviewed by Dr Angelica L Dumapit and Physician Chu I Ta on June 13, 2022

Cancer Symptoms: How To Deal With Loss Of Appetite

Cancer symptoms may include loss of appetite or malnutrition. Learn why good nutrition is imperative during your cancer fight, and how to keep your calorie intake up here.

Cancer patient loss of appetite min scaled

Cancer symptoms may include a wide range of unpleasant side effects. Examples include fatigue, nausea, pain, gastrointestinal complications, and weakened immunity.

Cancer-related malnutrition due to loss of appetite might not be talked about as much as other symptoms, but it’s just as important.

Without proper nutrition and energy levels, cancer patients may struggle to recover.

In this article, our experts provide tips for how to manage cancer symptoms that include malnutrition and loss of appetite.

Cancer Symptoms: Why Is Malnutrition Dangerous?

Preventing malnutrition can help you overcome cancer symptoms and recover quicker.

Cancer-related malnutrition is different from malnutrition due to starvation. Usually, a cancerous tumor and its treatment are the primary causes of this disorder.

Consequently, it can lead to lower treatment tolerance and a higher rate of mortality and malnutrition diseases.

In people with cancer, malnutrition often presents as cachexia, a condition that causes muscles to waste away. This can make it difficult for your body to digest foods and absorb nutrients optimally, especially protein. Muscle is made of protein, which is why a nutritionist might recommend a diet high in protein as treatment.

There are several reasons why this may occur, such as: 

  • Treatment for cancer in the head, neck, or gastrointestinal system (intestines, liver, pancreas, esophagus, and stomach) can impair your ability to swallow food. 
  • The side effects of treatment, including diarrhea, nausea, and projectile vomiting, can make it difficult for you to eat. 
  • Anxiety or depression can impact your nutritional intake by suppressing your appetite. 

Malnutrition Cancer Symptoms, According To TCM

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) states that weakness and low immunity trigger illness. It relates to a quote from the Yellow Emperor’s Internal Classic (Huangdi Neijing), which says, “Righteousness stores memory, evil cannot do it, and where evil gathers, its Qi (vital energy) will be empty.”

Simply put, pathogenic factors will not invade when there is sufficient Qi in the body. However, a congenital Jing (essence) Deficiency, an extreme change in the external environmental or lifestyle factors, can affect your body’s constitution. This may result in weakening Qi.

In addition, cancer cells may change the metabolism of glucose, protein, and fats in the body. Subsequently, these malnutrition causes can induce symptoms like fatigue, poor appetite, and weight loss.

How Is Malnutrition Diagnosed?

A dietitian is responsible for providing a full assessment of your nutritional status and determining if you are malnourished. They will then develop a customized eating plan to help maintain weight throughout cancer treatment. 

Firstly, the dietitian will study your medical history and note down your daily dietary consumption. Next, they will perform a physical assessment of your muscle and fat stores. They will take into account any recent changes to your appetite, energy levels, and eating patterns.

In some cases, suitable steps that will help lower your risk of malnutrition diseases are identified through your blood. 

Tips For Managing Cancer-Related Loss Of Appetite

Contrary to the requirements of a healthy, balanced diet, a dietitian can propose an unconventional plan to remedy malnutrition. Meanwhile, TCM practitioners will aim to suggest modalities that help enhance the effects of chemotherapy and reduce the toxicity of treatment side effects.

“The goal of supportive treatment is to fortify your immunity and protect the vital organs. Widely used during this phase are Qi-tonifying herbs. Adequate amounts of Qi in the organs will also improve your appetite to a certain degree,” says Real Health Medical Chief Physician Chu I Ta

Boost your calorie and protein intake

Eating a high-protein diet can help prevent muscle waste during cancer.

The best way to do this is to eat smaller, more frequent meals. Interestingly, the focus doesn’t need to be on consuming lots of fruits and vegetables.

Rather, it should be on increasing your intake of foods that enable you to achieve your daily calorie and protein intake. Examples of these are eggs, meats, nuts, and full-cream dairy products.

If cancer symptoms limit your eating ability, you can opt for foods that are easier to chew or swallow. An appetite-enhancing soup is a good way to stimulate hunger while being gentle and easy on digestion.

You are advised to consume supplemental nutrition beverages and let your dietitian or physician know if you’re using other health or herbal supplements. Doing this will help you avoid contraindications with cancer medication or treatment. 

Use herbal formulas

The use of herbal formulations can boost the effects of chemotherapy and reduce the severity of treatment side effects.

This is proven through the successful treatment of a man who experienced cachexia while undergoing cancer therapy. Physician Chu explains, “Mr. Lee was diagnosed with Stage Three colorectal cancer in June 2019.”

To remove a tumor and partially remove his colon, surgeons performed a colectomy in July 2019. Mr. Lee also completed 12 cycles of chemotherapy from September 2019 to April 2020 using a combination of various strong chemotherapy drugs.

“A significant drop in weight from 78kg to 62kg occurred within the first three months of therapy. He also experienced nausea, vomiting, hair loss, loss of appetite, and dry mouth and skin,” Physician Chu continued.

Hence, Mr. Lee sought the help of a TCM practitioner. He was diagnosed with Kidney and Spleen Qi Deficiency, Phlegm, and Stasis Coagulation. His prescription formula included Astragalus (Huang Qi), ginseng (Ren Shen), licorice (Gan Cao), Poria (Fu Ling), and Chinese dates (Hong Zao), amongst other ingredients. It helped improve his appetite, ease side effects and increase muscle mass and strength. 

Additional remedies that may help

Alternatively, the consumption of a Spleen Qi-strengthening porridge can also help to stimulate your appetite and help you gain strength. This meal contains rice and herbal ingredients like astragalus, hawthorn (Shan Zha), Chinese barley (Da Mai), Chinese yam (Huai Shan), and Chinese dates.

You can prepare it with moderate amounts of egg, chicken or fish, and green vegetables. The best time to serve this porridge is during breakfast or lunch.

TCM Can Help Support Cancer Treatment

Specific cancer types can inevitably make you susceptible to malnutrition diseases. Treating the disorder can prevent complications that arise from a lack of nutrition.

If you wish to support treatment, speak to an oncology-trained TCM practitioner. It can assure you that they’re safe for use without aggravating any side effects.

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