Cancer survivors are at high risk for fatigue and malnutrition after cancer treatment. As a matter of fact, fatigue and malnutrition are closely linked.
Let’s explore this link because understanding how your nutritional status influences your energy levels will help you nourish your body. And a well nourished body is essential to reaching the level of vitality you want after cancer.
How does malnutrition lead to fatigue?
Malnutrition is a medical condition that results from a lack of nutrients your body needs, particularly protein, calories, and micronutrients like zinc, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, and iodine. This lack of nutrients leads to body wasting and losing weight, specifically because of loss of fat and muscle mass. The loss of this mass results in physical exhaustion and weakness.
Malnutrition can have other effects as well. It gives you dry hair or hair loss, dry skin, delayed healing of wounds and infections, the feeling of always being cold, stomach problems like constipation or diarrhea, goiter, difficulty concentrating, irritability, depression, and anxiety.
And of course - the most obvious overall result of malnutrition is debilitating fatigue. Without the proper nutrients, you don’t have the fuel to function.
It’s just like a car that runs out of gas. The engine can’t do what it needs to do to propel you forward.
Without fuel, the car not only malfunctions, it totally breaks down.
Why people with cancer are at risk of malnutrition before, during, and after treatment.
You can become malnourished prior to your cancer diagnosis as a result of the disease itself. Cancer cells uses up more than their fair share of your body’s energy - they are “hypermetabolic” - and essentially starve your normal cells of nutrients and energy.
In fact, losing weight without trying is the hallmark medical sign of cancer.
Cancer survivors who have endured this insidious heist have an uphill battle during and after cancer treatment because their bodies were depleted of nutrients from the very beginning of their journey.
The effects of surgery, radiation, and chemo also contribute to malnutrition.
Changes to your anatomy, sense of taste and appetite, and your gut during treatment, like inflammation and diarrhea, can all contribute to a lack of appetite, as well as the inability of your body to absorb the nutrients you do consume.
Cancer survivors can remain at higher risk of malnourishment after cancer, particularly those with permanent changes to their sense of taste, difficulty chewing and swallowing due to surgery and radiation, or those with radiation or surgical changes to their GI tract and other organs involved in digestion and the processing of nutrients.
What about obesity?
Interestingly, obesity is also form of malnutrition - in the form of getting too many calories, often in the wrong proportions and lacking important nutrients your body needs. Foods that cause obesity like high sugar and fat foods, junk food, and fast food are nutrient poor but high calorie. This results in an obese, malnourished state.
Due to advances in modern medicine, cancer is being detected earlier than it has historically. As a result, many people diagnosed with cancer have not yet developed malnutrition from the disease itself, termed cancer cachexia, as discussed above.
Instead, many people undergoing cancer treatment are actually overweight. This has huge implications - obesity increases the risk of cancer recurrence and reduces the likelihood of survival for many cancers. Additionally, obesity is associated with increased death rates for all cancers combined.
That’s a big deal.
So what do you do about malnutrition after cancer, in any form?
If you suffer from malnutrition after cancer, or if you’re at high risk, it’s incredibly important for you to seek dietary advice from an experienced oncology registered dietician. Some underweight cancer survivors require supplemental tube feeding while they recover from treatment. This support allows you to heal and gain the strength you need to recover your energy.
For those who don’t need supplemental feeding, it’s equally important to establish healthy dietary patterns and maintain a healthy weight. I’m sure you’ve heard plenty of vague, non-inspiring advice about this, or maybe you’ve considered one of these fad diets circulating around Pinterest - keto, paleo, crazy-o?
It’s not so easy to make the diet changes that’ll keep you healthy and energized after cancer, especially without a specific, cancer survivor focused plan - not when you’re trying to get back to work, take care of your family, live your life after cancer, all while reeling from the fatigue, worry, and brain fog your cancer experience leaves you with.
Cancer survivors have more at stake here than just any regular Joe. You, my cancer survivor hero, can actually eat to increase your chance of staying cancer-free - what an opportunity!
I can’t wait to give you a simple, step-by-step, common sense approach healthy eating after cancer. Make sure to register for the FREE Online Workshop below so you can hear all about it.
Take care and eat well, Cancer Survivor.