Q. My uncle has advanced stage cancer and is very weak. He no longer is able to swallow well and has lost weight and strength. What can we do to help him gain some of his strength and weight? I hate to see nothing else is being done by his doctor and home nurse. Will a GI tube be something to consider mentioning?
Helping a loved one with cancer to manage symptoms and side effects can help caregivers to feel useful while also providing the patient with much-needed support. That said; I can hear how difficult it must be to witness your uncle facing such challenges, and to feel he is unsupported by his medical providers.
First, I would definitely encourage you to address your concerns with your uncle’s oncologist. While it may feel uncomfortable to broach the conversation about your feelings about the lack of support, you have the right to ask questions and get information. It’s important that your uncle’s weight is a priority as this will likely impact his ability to maintain his strength, both physically and emotionally.
Talking with a nutritionist or dietician on staff at his treatment center may also help you explore alternatives and to consider any foods he still may be able to tolerate and swallow on his own. However, tube feeding or intravenous nutrition can be a more practical way of helping him to get the nutrition he needs if he is unable to swallow on his own enough to get adequate nutrients. Feeding tubes and intravenous nutrition work with prescribed medications, so his oncologist and nurses may be able to educate him about the different options for tube feeding, as well as help him to get accustomed to this new way of feeding.
You may also benefit from exploring these CancerCare fact sheets and podcasts which provide additional information on the importance of nutrition and dealing with weight changes:
- Healthy Eating and Managing Weight Changes During Cancer Treatment
- Weight Changes After Cancer Treatment: Why is it Happening and What Can I Do About It
- Coping With Appetite and Weight Changes
- Coping with Cancer-Related Weight Changes and Muscle Loss
- The Importance of Nutrition During Treatment
In addition, The Oley Foundation works to provide information, education and advocacy surrounding intravenous nutrition tube feeding and may also be a useful resource if this is recommended for your uncle.
Keep in mind that getting support from other patients in a similar situation might also help give your uncle practical tips to manage these side effects, and may help foster a sense of hope and strength. Given his challenges with weakness and swallowing, perhaps an online support group would be a more feasible option. You can learn more about about our online support groups which are completely free, available 24/7, and facilitated by licensed, master’s level oncology social workers. We also provide free individual counseling by phone, and you can reach a social worker by calling 800-813-4673. Know that these services are available to you, too, as you cope with being a caregiver and what this role means to you.