Nutritional support or tube feeding

Cancer, or the effects of cancer treatments, can sometimes cause malnutrition and weight loss.

Malnutrition is when the body is not getting enough vitamins, minerals and nutrients, such as protein, to keep healthy and maintain weight. This may be because you have a reduced appetite, or have symptoms such as difficulty swallowing or a sore mouth.

These problems may only happen for a short time. Changes to your diet or supplementing it with nutritious drinks or supplements is sometimes all you need.

But for some people, this will not be enough to keep to a healthy weight. If someone can’t swallow or is having difficulty swallowing, they may need additional support.

If you can’t eat or drink enough to maintain your weight, your doctors or dietitian may suggest artificial nutritional support. This is when nutrients are delivered into your body through a tube (artificial feeding), either into the gut or into a vein. It can be used to help people who are not able to eat or drink in the usual way. This can seem overwhelming at first, but when people feel the benefits of having nutritional support, they usually begin to feel less worried.

What nutritional support is used for

Nutritional support can help:

  • prevent weight loss
  • help a person who needs to put on weight
  • help with weakness or tiredness
  • make sure that a person is getting enough liquid
  • ease the pressure of having to eat, for example if a person has problems swallowing and finds it difficult to eat
  • help a person take medicines that might be difficult to swallow by mouth.

Why artificial nutritional support might be used

Generally, artificial nutritional support is needed if a person:

  • has difficulty swallowing, which may be due to cancer of the throat or gullet, or because of a sore mouth due to radiotherapy or chemotherapy
  • has lost a lot of weight (usually 10% or more of their body weight), and dietary supplements have not helped
  • has been unable to eat or drink enough, and dietary supplements have not helped.