Maintaining Muscle Strength After a Cancer Diagnosis

By Posted on

As a specialist in oncology nutrition, one of the most commonly discussed cancer-related symptom is weight change. My goal as an oncology dietitian is to help people stay well-nourished while undergoing cancer treatment. At each visit, for every person undergoing cancer treatment, I start with a weight check and physical exam. Specifically, this includes assessing lean body mass (muscle) and changes in body fat. It is crucial to monitor changes in body composition at each visit because too much loss (fat and/or muscle) can lead to negative health effects.

When a person is getting treatment, it is imperative to preserve lean body mass. I often hear from people undergoing cancer treatment that they welcome some weight loss. But most weight loss is not just loss in body fat, it is also accompanied by a loss in lean body mass.

When a patient loses lean body mass, they may experience an increase in cancer-related fatigue, weakness and the inability to participate in normal activities. Loss of lean body mass may also interfere with the ability to receive treatment.

Preventing loss of lean body mass

During my time working with patients who are undergoing cancer treatment, we discuss strategies to maintain lean body mass.

The first tactic I stress is to continue to move as much as they did prior to diagnosis. Here is what I say: “Do not stop exercising, working, and tinkering around the house, yard or garage. When you are using your muscles, they are constantly rebuilding. When muscle is not being used or relaxed, rebuilding slows.”

The next tactic we discuss is moving more, if safely possible. Physical activity in any form can help maintain and even build muscle. The goal is to aim for 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week – being able to talk but not sing while exercising, or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week – not being able to talk while exercising.

If you are unable to exercise at a moderate or vigorous pace as treatment progresses, any exercise is beneficial. I encourage even simple activities like stretching or yoga, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, and short walking trips. Many cancer centers or local hospitals offer free or inexpensive exercise classes.

Along with exercise, consuming adequate nutrition is also very important. Lack of proper nutrition can cause muscle loss and continued lack of nutrients can lead to malnutrition. I often see treatment interruptions once malnutrition becomes a serious problem.

As you go throughout treatment, strive to balance your plate with high-quality protein foods at each meal and snack. This includes poultry, seafood, lean meats, shellfish, eggs, dairy, whole soy foods, quinoa, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds. Weight loss of more than two pounds per week may be especially concerning. Try to avoid skipping meals and snacks and strive to consume small, frequent meals and snacks throughout the day.

Consuming adequate nutrition is possible even if you are dealing with cancer-related side effects. Many times I see side effects and symptoms go untreated. Speak with your healthcare team about all struggles that you are dealing with and seek out help. If you aren’t currently working with a dietitian, ask for a referral or search here.

Try to incorporate some of AICR Healthy Recipes for your meals and snacks.

The AICR Cancer Resources book offers lots of tips for managing cancer-related side effects.


Author: Angela Hummel

Angela Hummel, MS, RD, CSO, LDN, is a consulting dietitian with AICR. She is passionate about helping people make positive diet and physical activity changes for reducing cancer risk and for healthier survivorship. She initiated and developed two oncology nutrition programs in cancer centers. Angela also uses her expertise with two AICR programs – the New American Plate Challenge, and the Nutrition hotline.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *