Información sobre riesgo, prevención, detección, síntomas, diagnosis, tratamiento y apoyo para el cáncer.
Información sobre el tratamiento del cáncer incluyendo quirúrgica, quimioterapia, radioterapia, estudios clínicos, terapia con protón, medicina complementaria avanzadas.
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Maneras que los pacientes de cáncer y las personas que le cuidan puedan enfrentar el cáncer, los efectos secundarios, nutrición, cuestiones en general sobre el apoyo para el cáncer, duelo/decisiones sobre el termino de vida, y experiencias compartidas por sobrevivientes.
National Cancer Institute
Last Modified: September 28, 2012
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Nutrition is a process in which food is taken in and used by the body for growth, to keep the body healthy, and to replace tissue. Good nutrition is important for good health. Eating the right kinds of foods before, during, and after cancer treatment can help the patient feel better and stay stronger. A healthy diet includes eating and drinking enough of the foods and liquids that have the important nutrients (vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates, fat, and water) the body needs.
This summary is about nutrition in adults with cancer.
Nutrition therapy is used to help cancer patients get the nutrients they need to keep up their body weight and strength, keep body tissue healthy, and fight infection. Eating habits that are good for cancer patients can be very different from the usual healthy eating guidelines.
Healthy eating habits and good nutrition can help patients deal with the effects of cancer and its treatment. Some cancer treatments work better when the patient is well nourished and gets enough calories and protein in the diet. Patients who are well nourished may have a better prognosis (chance of recovery) and quality of life.
Some tumors make chemicals that change the way the body uses certain nutrients. The body's use of protein, carbohydrates, and fat may be affected, especially by tumors of the stomach or intestines. A patient may seem to be eating enough, but the body may not be able to absorb all the nutrients from the food.
When the head, neck, esophagus, stomach, or intestines are affected by the cancer treatment, it is very hard to take in enough nutrients to stay healthy.
The side effects of cancer and cancer treatment that can affect eating include:
Cancer and cancer treatments may affect taste, smell, appetite, and the ability to eat enough food or absorb the nutrients from food. This can cause malnutrition (a condition caused by a lack of key nutrients). Malnutrition can cause the patient to be weak, tired, and unable to fight infections or get through cancer treatment. Malnutrition may be made worse if the cancer grows or spreads. Eating too little protein and calories is a very common problem for cancer patients. Having enough protein and calories is important for healing, fighting infection, and having enough energy.
Anorexia (the loss of appetite or desire to eat) is a common symptom in people with cancer. Anorexia may occur early in the disease or later, if the cancer grows or spreads. Some patients already have anorexia when they are diagnosed with cancer. Almost all patients who have advanced cancer will have anorexia. Anorexia is the most common cause of malnutrition in cancer patients.
Cachexia is a condition marked by a loss of appetite, weight loss, muscle loss, and general weakness. It is common in patients with tumors of the lung, pancreas, and upper gastrointestinal tract. It is important to watch for and treat cachexia early in cancer treatment because it is hard to correct.
Cancer patients may have anorexia and cachexia at the same time. Weight loss can be caused by eating fewer calories, using more calories, or both.
It is important that cancer symptoms and side effects that affect eating and cause weight loss are treated early. Both nutrition therapy and medicine can help the patient stay at a healthy weight. Medicine may be used for the following:
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Early nutrition screening and assessment help find problems that may affect how well the patient's body can deal with the effects of cancer treatment. Patients who are underweight or malnourished may not be able to get through treatment as well as a well-nourished patient. Finding and treating nutrition problems early can help the patient gain weight or prevent weight loss, decrease problems with the treatment, and help recovery.
A patient whose religion doesn't allow eating certain foods may want to talk with a religious advisor about allowing those foods during cancer treatment and recovery.
The main goals of nutrition therapy for patients in active treatment and recovery are to provide nutrients that are missing, maintain nutritional health, and prevent problems. The health care team will use nutrition therapy to do the following:
The goals of nutrition therapy for patients who have advanced cancer include the following:
See the Nutrition in Advanced Cancer section for more information.
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It is best to take in food by mouth whenever possible. Some patients may not be able to take in enough food by mouth because of problems from cancer or cancer treatment. Medicine to increase appetite may be used.
A patient who is not able to take in enough food by mouth may be fed using enteral nutrition (through a tube inserted into the stomach or intestines) or parenteral nutrition (infused into the bloodstream). The nutrients are given in liquid formulas that have water, protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and/or minerals.
Nutrition support can improve a patient's quality of life during cancer treatment, but there are harms that should be considered before making the decision to use it. The patient and health care providers should discuss the harms and benefits of each type of nutrition support. (See the Nutrition in Advanced Cancer section below for more information on deciding whether to use nutrition support.)
Enteral nutrition is giving the patient nutrients in liquid form (formula) through a tube that is placed into the stomach or small intestine. The following types of feeding tubes may be used:
The type of formula used is based on the specific needs of the patient. There are formulas for patients who have special health conditions, such as diabetes. Formula may be given through the tube as a constant drip (continuous feeding) or 1 to 2 cups of formula can be given 3 to 6 times a day (bolus feeding).
Enteral nutrition is sometimes used when the patient is able to eat small amounts by mouth, but cannot eat enough for health. Nutrients given through a tube feeding add the calories and nutrients needed for health.
If enteral nutrition is to be part of the patient's care after leaving the hospital, the patient and caregiver will be trained to do the nutrition support care at home.
Parenteral nutrition is used when the patient cannot take food by mouth or by enteral feeding. Parenteral feeding does not use the stomach or intestines to digest food. Nutrients are given to the patient directly into the blood, through a catheter (thin tube) inserted into a vein. These nutrients include proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals.
Parenteral nutrition is used only in patients who need nutrition support for five days or more.
A central venous catheter is placed beneath the skin and into a large vein in the upper chest. The catheter is put in place by a surgeon. This type of catheter is used for long-term parenteral feeding.
A peripheral venous catheter is placed into a vein in the arm. A peripheral venous catheter is put in place by trained medical staff. This type of catheter is usually used for short-term parenteral feeding.
The patient is checked often for infection or bleeding at the place where the catheter enters the body.
If parenteral nutrition is to be part of the patient's care after leaving the hospital, the patient and caregiver will be trained to do the nutrition support care at home.
Going off parenteral nutrition support needs to be done slowly and is supervised by a medical team. The parenteral feedings are decreased by small amounts over time until they can be stopped, or as the patient is changed over to enteral or oral feeding.
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The body needs extra energy and nutrients to heal wounds, fight infection, and recover from surgery. If the patient is malnourished before surgery, it may cause problems during recovery, such as poor healing or infection. For these patients, nutrition care may begin before surgery.
More than half of cancer patients are treated with surgery. Surgery that removes all or part of certain organs can affect a patient's ability to eat and digest food. The following are nutrition problems caused by specific types of surgery:
It is common for patients to have pain, tiredness, and/or loss of appetite after surgery. For a short time, some patients may not be able to eat what they usually do because of these symptoms. Following certain tips about food may help. These include:
Chemotherapy affects fast-growing cells and is used to treat cancer because cancer cells grow and divide quickly. Healthy cells that normally grow and divide quickly may also be killed. These include cells in the mouth, digestive tract, and hair follicles.
Chemotherapy may cause side effects that cause problems with eating and digestion. When more than one anticancer drug is given, more side effects may occur or they may be more severe. The following side effects are common:
Patients who have side effects from chemotherapy may not be able to eat normally and get all the nutrients they need to restore healthy blood counts between treatments. Nutrition therapy can help relieve these side effects, help patients recover from chemotherapy, prevent delays in treatment, prevent weight loss, and maintain general health. Nutrition therapy may include the following:
Radiation therapy can kill cancer cells and healthy cells in the treatment area. The amount of damage depends on the following:
Radiation therapy to any part of the digestive system often has side effects that cause nutrition problems. Most of the side effects begin a few weeks after radiation therapy begins and go away a few weeks after it is finished. Some side effects can continue for months or years after treatment ends.
Radiation therapy may also cause tiredness, which can lead to a decrease in appetite.
Nutrition therapy during radiation treatment can help the patient get enough protein and calories to get through treatment, prevent weight loss, help wound and skin healing, and maintain general health. Nutrition therapy may include the following:
See the Stem Cell Transplant and Nutrition section for more information.
The side effects of biologic therapy can cause weight loss and malnutrition if they are not treated. Nutrition therapy can help patients receiving biologic therapy get the nutrients they need to get through treatment, prevent weight loss, and maintain general health.
Chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and medicines used for a stem cell transplant may cause side effects that keep a patient from eating and digesting food as usual. Common side effects include the following:
Transplant patients have a very high risk of infection. High doses of chemotherapy or radiation therapy decrease the number of white blood cells, which fight infection. It is especially important that transplant patients avoid getting infections.
Patients who have a transplant need plenty of protein and calories to get through and recover from the treatment, prevent weight loss, fight infection, and maintain general health. It is also important to avoid infection from bacteria in food. Nutrition therapy during transplant treatment may include the following:
See the Low White Blood Cell Counts and Infections section for more information.
When side effects of cancer or cancer treatment affect normal eating, changes can be made to help the patient get the nutrients needed. Medicines may be given to increase appetite. Eating foods that are high in calories, protein, vitamins, and minerals is usually best. Meals should be planned to meet the patient's nutrition needs and tastes in food. The following are some of the more common symptoms caused by cancer and cancer treatment and ways to treat or control them.
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Anorexia (the loss of appetite or desire to eat) is one of the most common problems for cancer patients. Eating in a calm, comfortable place and getting regular exercise may improve appetite. The following may help cancer patients who have a loss of appetite:
See the NCI Web site for Eating Hints: Before, During, and After Cancer Treatment, which has recipes such as Lactose-Free Double Chocolate Pudding, Banana Milkshake, and Fruit and Cream. For a free copy of this booklet, call the Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).
Changes in how foods taste may be caused by radiation treatment, dental problems, mouth sores and infections, or some medicines. Many cancer patients who receive chemotherapy notice a bitter taste or other changes in their sense of taste. A sudden dislike for certain foods may occur. This can cause a loss of appetite, weight loss, and a decreased quality of life. Some or all of a normal sense of taste may return, but it may take up to a year after treatment ends. The following may help cancer patients who have taste changes:
Dry mouth is often caused by radiation therapy to the head and neck and by certain medicines. Dry mouth may affect speech, taste, and the ability to swallow or to use dentures or braces. There is also an increased risk of cavities and gum disease because less saliva is made to wash the teeth and gums.
See the Dry Mouth section of the PDQ® summary on Oral Complications of Chemotherapy and Head/Neck Radiation for more information.
Mouth sores can be caused by chemotherapy and radiation therapy. These treatments affect fast-growing cells, such as cancer cells. Normal cells inside the mouth also grow quickly and may be damaged by these cancer treatments. Mouth sores can be painful and become infected or bleed and make it hard to eat. By choosing certain foods and taking good care of their mouths, patients can usually make eating easier. The following can help patients who have mouth sores and infections:
See the Oral Mucositis and Infection sections of the PDQ® summary on Oral Complications of Chemotherapy and Head/Neck Radiation for more information on mouth sores and infections.
Nausea caused by cancer treatment can affect the amount and kinds of food eaten. The following may help cancer patients control nausea:
See the PDQ® summary on Nausea and Vomiting for more information.
Diarrhea may be caused by cancer treatments, surgery on the stomach or intestines, or by emotional stress. Long-term diarrhea may lead to dehydration (lack of water in the body) or low levels of salt and potassium, which are important minerals needed by the body.
See the Dehydration (Lack of Fluid) section for more information.
A low white blood cell count may be caused by radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or the cancer itself. Patients who have a low white blood cell count have an increased risk of infection. The following may help cancer patients prevent infections when white blood cell counts are low:
The body needs plenty of water to replace the fluids lost every day. Nausea, vomiting, and pain may keep the patient from drinking and eating enough to get the amount of water the body needs. Long-term diarrhea causes a loss of fluid from the body. One of the first signs of dehydration (lack of water in the body) is feeling very tired. The following may help cancer patients prevent dehydration:
It is very common for cancer patients to have constipation (fewer than three bowel movements a week). Constipation may be caused by the following:
Preventing and treating constipation is a part of cancer care.
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