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Lung Cancer and Weight Loss: What You Should Know

Medically reviewed by Danielle Leonardo, M.D.
Written by Tristan Jesby
Updated on April 19, 2024

According to cancer researchers, approximately 60 percent of all people diagnosed with lung cancer report losing weight. As one MyLungCancerTeam member wrote, “I can’t seem to gain weight. I lost a good bit of weight before I was diagnosed, plus the treatments didn’t help.”

Considering all the different causes of weight loss in cancer, researchers have suggested that one’s body weight can be an indicator of health outcomes and quality of life. Researchers have also found that the effectiveness of radiation and chemotherapies improved when a person was able to maintain a healthy weight.

If you are concerned about your body weight, reach out to your health care team to discuss ways to curb weight loss or gain weight.

What Causes Weight Loss in Lung Cancer?

Multiple factors can play a role in your weight change. Your health care team will consider the side effects of your treatment, the current symptoms of your lung cancer, and the role they play in weight management.

Resting Energy Expenditure

People with lung cancer burn more energy at rest as their bodies try to regulate their condition. With the added strain on the body from lung cancer and its treatments, the energy balance shifts negative, and weight is lost. Another factor is cancer’s use of glucose for its own needs, which takes away calories from the rest of the body.

Weight Loss From Other Cancer Symptoms

Weight loss can occur at any time throughout your experience with lung cancer. In 40 percent of all initial cancer diagnoses, a person has already shown signs of weight loss. This finding has led some oncology experts to consider weight loss when analyzing the prognosis (course) of a person’s lung cancer. However, weight loss usually doesn’t start until the lung cancer has begun to reach an advanced stage (i.e., a metastatic form of cancer).

Loss of Appetite

Loss of appetite, which is clinically known as anorexia, is one of the main factors contributing to malnutrition in a lung cancer diagnosis. As one MyLungCancerTeam member wrote, “I have gone from 220 pounds to 161. No appetite. Food doesn’t appeal to me.”

This lack of an urge to eat is harder to overcome when people with lung cancer experience eating complications, like difficulty with chewing and swallowing. It’s common for people with lung cancer to fall into a negative feedback loop — they develop fatigue and weakness due to not eating enough, and this exhaustion makes it more difficult to eat.

Pain can also cause a loss of appetite in people with lung cancer. It’s difficult for some people to enjoy a meal when they are in constant pain, which may account for unexplained weight loss.

Cachexia

If body weight isn’t managed properly, a person with lung cancer may experience a condition known as cancer cachexia. Cancer can produce substances that suppress hunger. This can occur in advanced stages of lung cancer, causing a person’s body to lose the ability to ingest and use nutrients in food. Although much is yet to be learned about cachexia, researchers have observed that long-term anorexia may be a factor in the development of a dual-part syndrome called cancer-related anorexia/cachexia syndrome.

Hypercalcemia

When lung cancer cells spread (metastasize), they may move to the neighboring bones around the lungs (a process known as bone metastasis). For people with non-small cell lung cancer, this metastasizing may result in hypercalcemia (excess calcium in the bloodstream).

As cancer cells begin to affect the bones, the bones may release a large amount of calcium into the bloodstream. This excess in calcium levels may also cause various gastrointestinal issues, like nausea and vomiting, making it difficult to eat.

Weight Loss as a Side Effect of Lung Cancer Treatment

As your health care team begins your lung cancer treatment, it’s important to be aware of the side effects that may come with your specific treatment plan.

The objective of advanced lung cancer treatments (like chemotherapy or radiation therapies) is to target rapidly dividing cancer. However, some of your healthy cells may be temporarily damaged during treatment. For this reason, it’s typical for people with lung cancer to have serious fatigue during treatment, which could lead to weight loss because it makes food preparation and eating more challenging.

Problems With Eating

Various other treatment-related side effects may complicate eating properly and, consequently, cause weight loss. Many people diagnosed with lung cancer may experience nausea, vomiting, constipation, or diarrhea. Some lose their sense of taste or find that certain foods may have an unpleasant flavor. Chemotherapy, in particular, has been known to worsen conditions like loss of appetite.

As one MyLungCancerTeam member wrote, “I had no appetite, and everything had no flavor when I was going through daily radiation and chemo for six weeks. I used to have to make myself eat. Happy to say, about three weeks after treatment, my appetite returned!”

How Does Weight Loss Affect People With Lung Cancer?

An unexpected drop in regular weight can overwhelm people as they deal with lung cancer. Many members of MyLungCancerTeam have voiced their struggles when grappling with weight loss. As one member wrote, “Feeling stressed a bit today. I finally got a scale to check my weight progression. I was stunned when I saw 114.5 pounds. Much lower than I anticipated.”

With the additional stress of weight loss and an energy imbalance, it’s common for people with lung cancer to experience fatigue. It’s no wonder people may forget to eat or be unable to manage their diets when they are battling pain and exhaustion.

Effect on Loved Ones

The friends and family members of those diagnosed may have a tough time watching their loved ones deal with appetite issues and weight loss. As one MyLungCancerTeam member noted, “Sometimes, I think this disease is harder on my loved ones than myself. I myself get all the empathy, sympathy, prayers, and love galore. ... They get the leftovers if some folks acknowledge their grief at all.”

It may be difficult for your friends and family members to react to weight loss caused by lung cancer. Let them know that you appreciate their support, and if they say negative things about your weight, share your feelings with them.

Managing Weight Loss With Lung Cancer

There are many ways for people with lung cancer to manage their weight loss, both on their own and with their health care teams.

Consult a Dietitian

Your health care team may call upon oncology-registered dietitians to help you prevent unwanted weight loss. Setting up a nutrition plan with your dietitian can help you work to maintain a healthy body weight throughout your diagnosis.

You may want to use calorie additives that could make your meals and snacks more calorie-dense. Milk powder can add calories without affecting the taste of food too much. As one MyLungCancerTeam member stated, “I had a great dietitian at my oncologist’s office who helped me with high-calorie shakes and a list of spices that helped flavor food for me, and I had no weight loss. It might help to have a visit with one.”

A dietitian may urge a person with cancer to eat more of their favorite foods, and the more calories, as tolerated, the better. This isn’t the time to restrict yourself to vegetables and fruits. A dietitian may even recommend dietary supplements to make sure you get the nutrients you need. Don’t start any new treatments, including over-the-counter drugs or natural remedies, without first consulting your health care team.

There are also some home remedies you may want to try. Some experts recommend ginger-containing foods or drinks, for instance, to help reduce nausea.

Medical Marijuana

Although more clinical trials still need to be conducted, medical marijuana may help reduce nausea in people with lung cancer. As a cautionary note, it might be best to consult with your oncologist about the risk factors of smoking cannabis as opposed to alternative methods of consumption, like edibles (foods or beverages containing cannabis extracts) or taking it as a prescription medication. It’s also important to be aware of the laws about marijuana in your state.

Keeping a Lung Cancer Diary

To help you take an active role in your weight management, it may be a good idea to keep a cancer diary to log your day-to-day life with lung cancer. Not only does this allow you to create an artifact of your thoughts and feelings along the way, but it also helps you provide your health care team with data about your weight, appetite, and other symptoms.

Write down the date every time you make an entry in the journal. By considering where you are in the cycle of your treatment, your doctors may be able to distinguish weight loss symptoms caused by lung cancer from treatment-related weight loss.

If the idea of journaling seems off-putting, you can think about your writing as a narrative that details your journey through battling lung cancer and the resulting weight loss. The form of the diary can be completely up to you. You may prefer to write a daily symptom log, or if you find the inspiration, you can take a more artistic approach.

For example, a member of MyLungCancerTeam said that journaling — particularly with poetry — is a therapeutic process: “I write to cope. It’s therapy for me.”

Find Your Community

On MyLungCancerTeam, the social network for people with lung cancer and their loved ones, more than 12,000 people from around the world come together to ask questions, offer support and advice, and connect with others who understand life with lung cancer.

Have you lost weight throughout your lung cancer diagnosis? Do you have favorite calorie-dense snacks to recommend? Share your story in the comments below or by posting on MyLungCancerTeam.

References
  1. Weight Loss — Cancer Research UK
  2. Weight Gain in Advanced Non-Small-Cell Lung Cancer Patients During Treatment With Split-Course Concurrent Chemoradiotherapy Is Associated With Superior Survival — International Journal of Radiation Oncology, Biology, Physics
  3. Side Effects of Cancer Treatment — National Cancer Institute
  4. Do Patients With Weight Loss Have a Worse Outcome When Undergoing Chemotherapy for Lung Cancers? — British Journal of Cancer
  5. Resting Energy Expenditure in Patients With Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer — Cancer
  6. Weight Loss — Cancer.Net
  7. Post‐Diagnosis Weight Loss as a Prognostic Factor in Non‐Small Cell Lung Cancer — Journal of Cachexia, Sarcopenia, and Muscle
  8. Loss of Appetite — American Cancer Society
  9. Management of Anorexia-Cachexia in Late-Stage Lung Cancer Patients — Journal of Hospice & Palliative Nursing
  10. Management of Cancer Anorexia/Cachexia — Wolters Kluwer UpToDate
  11. Bone Metastasis — University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center
  12. Small Cell Carcinoma Lung Presenting as Life-Threatening Hypercalcemia — A Rare Association — Lung India
  13. Hypercalcemia — Cleveland Clinic
  14. Lung Cancer Treatment — RadiologyInfo.org
  15. Nutrition in Cancer Care (PDQ) — Health Professional Version — National Cancer Institute
  16. Your Lung Cancer Treatment Team — Caring Ambassadors Program
  17. The Effectiveness of Ginger in the Prevention of Nausea and Vomiting During Pregnancy and Chemotherapy — Integrative Medicine Insights
  18. Marijuana and Cancer — American Cancer Society
  19. The Power of Writing — Cancer.Net
  20. Tips for Sharing and Writing About Your Cancer Journey — Moffitt Cancer Center
  21. Journaling Your Way Through Cancer — The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center
    Updated on April 19, 2024
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    Danielle Leonardo, M.D. is a board-certified specialist in internal medicine and medical oncology from the Philippines and has been practicing medicine since 2014. Learn more about her here.
    Tristan Jesby graduated from Quinnipiac University's five-year MAT program with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a master’s in secondary education. Learn more about him here.

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