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Nutrition in Cancer Care (PDQ®): Supportive care - Patient Information [NCI] - Types of Nutrition Care

Nutrition support gives nutrition to patients who cannot eat or digest normally.

It is best to take in food by mouth whenever possible. Some patients may not be able to take in enough food by mouth because of problems from cancer or cancer treatment. Medicine to increase appetite may be used.

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Nutrition support for patients who cannot eat can be given in different ways.

A patient who is not able to take in enough food by mouth may be fed using enteral nutrition (through a tube inserted into the stomach or intestines) or parenteral nutrition (infused into the bloodstream). The nutrients are given in liquid formulas that have water, protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and/or minerals.

Nutrition support can improve a patient's quality of life during cancer treatment, but there are harms that should be considered before making the decision to use it. The patient and health care providers should discuss the harms and benefits of each type of nutrition support. (See the Nutrition in Advanced Cancer section below for more information on deciding whether to use nutrition support.)

Enteral Nutrition

Enteral nutrition is also called tube feeding.

Enteral nutrition is giving the patient nutrients in liquid form (formula) through a tube that is placed into the stomach or small intestine. The following types of feeding tubes may be used:

  • A nasogastric tube is inserted through the nose and down the throat into the stomach or small intestine. This kind of tube is used when enteral nutrition is only needed for a few weeks.
  • A gastrostomy tube is inserted into the stomach or a jejunostomy tube is inserted into the small intestine through an opening made on the outside of the abdomen. This kind of tube is usually used for long-term enteral feeding or for patients who cannot use a tube in the nose and throat.

The type of formula used is based on the specific needs of the patient. There are formulas for patients who have special health conditions, such as diabetes. Formula may be given through the tube as a constant drip (continuous feeding) or 1 to 2 cups of formula can be given 3 to 6 times a day (bolus feeding).

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