In patients with gastrointestinal malignancies, i.e. cancers of the stomach, colon, liver, biliary tract or pancreas, progressive undernutrition can be regularly observed during the course of illness. Undernutrition significantly affects the patients’ quality of life, morbidity and survival.
Pathogenetically, two different causes are relevant in the development of undernutrition in patients with gastrointestinal cancer. One cause is reduced nutritional intake. This condition is referred to as anorexia and can be worsened by the side effects of cancer therapy. The other cause is the release of endogenous transmitters and/or other products of the tumour leading to the cachexia syndrome, which is characterized by loss of body weight, negative nitrogen balance and fatigue. Cancer anorexia and cancer cachexia may have synergistic negative effects in affecting the patients’ status.
In this review, current nutritional support strategies with respect to different clinically relevant situations are described. An algorithm of the treatment strategies, including dietetic counselling, oral supplements, enteral and parenteral nutritional support is given. One focus is the approach of nutrition-focused patient care, which shows promising results. In addition, the possibilities of pharmacological intervention are discussed.