This section has been reviewed and approved by the PLWC Editorial
Board , 02/05
Although it is more common to lose weight during cancer treatment, some
people with cancer gain weight. Slight increases in weight during cancer
treatment are generally not problematic. However, significant weight gain
may affect a person's health and the ability to tolerate treatments.
Weight gain is an especially important health issue for people living
with breast cancer, as over half of women experience weight gain during
treatment. Reports have shown that weight gain is linked to a poorer
prognosis (chance of recovery). Being overweight before treatment begins
also increases the risk of serious health conditions, such as high blood
pressure, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
The following cancer treatments may produce symptoms that lead to weight
- Some chemotherapy causes
the body to retain (hold on) to excess fluid in cells and tissues,
- A decrease in physical
activity, usually from fatigue, can cause people to exercise less
and leads to weight gain.
- Chemotherapy can
increase hunger (especially for high-fat foods) and can trigger
intense food cravings.
- Chemotherapy has been
shown to decrease metabolism (the rate that energy is used), which
can cause weight gain.
- Chemotherapy can cause
menopause in some women, which is associated with changes in
metabolism that can increase the likelihood of weight gain.
Steroids are hormonal substances that are used in cancer treatment. They
can cause an increase in fatty issue, resulting in a big belly and
fullness in the neck or face. Steroids can also cause peripheral wasting
(the loss of muscle mass). A noticeable increase in weight usually only
happens when people have been taking steroids continuously for many
Hormone therapy for the treatment of breast, uterine, prostate, and
testicular cancers involves medications that decrease the amount of
estrogen or progesterone in women and testosterone in men. Hormone
therapy can increase body mass from fat, decrease body mass from muscle,
and change how food is metabolized, resulting in weight gain.
Managing weight gain
If gaining weight becomes a concern, consult a doctor or registered
dietitian (RD) before starting a diet or changing eating habits. They can
help discover the possible cause of the weight gain and find the best way
to manage it. In addition, an RD can provide nutritional guidelines or a
customized diet plan.
Ways to manage diet and physical activity include the following:
- Eat plenty of fruits,
vegetables, breads, and cereals.
- Limit fats, simple
sugars, and refined flour.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Evaluate everyday eating
habits and try to identify behavior patterns that lead to overeating
- Check with a doctor
about increasing the amount of exercise.
- Do strength-building
exercises for the arms and shoulders if muscle mass has been lost.
Signs of fluid retention
It is important to immediately call a doctor if there are any of the
following signs of fluid retention:
- Skin that feels stiff
(small indentations left on the skin after pressing on the swollen
- Swelling around ankles
- Rings, wristwatches,
bracelets, or shoes that fit tighter than usual
- Decreased flexibility in
hands, elbows, wrists, fingers, or legs
The following tips can help a person manage fluid
- Ask a doctor about
prescribing a diuretic medication to rid the body of excess water.
- Lower the amount of salt
in the diet.
- Avoid standing for long
periods and elevate feet as often as possible.
- Avoid crossing the legs,
which restricts blood flow.
- Monitor body weight
- Avoid tight clothing.
PLWC Feature: Exercise and Cancer