An ovarian cancer diagnosis is life-changing and can disrupt many daily routines and activities. People who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer often lose weight. Less commonly, some people with the condition will gain weight.
Alongside the stress and disruption that the diagnosis can bring, cancer treatments — including chemotherapy and maintenance therapy — have been known to cause weight gain, as well. Although losing weight can be difficult, it is doable. You can start by setting small goals to help set you on the path to wellness.
In this article, we examine the potential causes of weight gain in people with ovarian cancer and discuss simple tips you can implement to help you maintain a healthy weight after your diagnosis.
According to research, 30 percent of people treated for gynecological malignancies and breast cancer gain weight during and right after treatment. Several different factors can cause weight gain before and after an ovarian cancer diagnosis.
Ovarian cancer can be hard to detect because tumors grow near and can spread to the uterus. The uterus is designed to hold a baby and can expand significantly, meaning that tumors can become large before being discovered. At or before their initial diagnosis, some people may feel like they have gained weight due to the resulting symptoms of ovarian cancer, such as increased abdominal size or bloating. This may be due to fluid accumulation in the abdomen called ascites, which can result in bloating and increased weight gain.
After diagnosis, you enter the treatment phase. Your treatment options will depend on the severity of your condition. In the early stages of treatment, many people have to undergo surgery. Surgery can result in losing ovaries and other parts of your reproductive system. This alone can result in your body going into early menopause, causing you to gain weight. Weight gain during menopause can be attributed to hormonal changes and the loss of muscle tissue.
The next stage of treatment is chemotherapy. Chemotherapy for ovarian cancer has been known to cause both weight gain and weight loss, and it tends to affect everyone differently. As one MyOvarianCancerTeam member wrote, “I also gained 25 pounds on chemo! I blame it on steroids, being pushed into menopause suddenly, and being inactive while in chemo. Normally, I am very active.”
As this member pointed out, several different aspects of ovarian cancer treatment can lead to weight gain. Many people gain weight due to the types of chemotherapy and other drugs (steroids) that they are taking. Chemo, in particular, can cause fluid retention and lower a person’s metabolism. It can also lead to fatigue (making it difficult to exercise) as well as intense food cravings. Steroid medications can also dramatically increase a person’s appetite. Some people find that they gain weight during treatment because eating helps with treatment-related nausea.
At this stage, you might feel overwhelmed, worried, or tired, or you may still experience physical pain or fatigue. All of these factors can lead to weight gain or difficulty in losing weight gained during treatment. Some people overeat for the comfort they find in food. Others may be too exhausted to exercise after the experience or because of their maintenance drugs. Others still may lose weight due to cancer (from surgery, chemo, radiation, or cancer itself) and experience “rebound” weight gain after treatment has ended.
Many members of MyOvarianCancerTeam say that they gained weight after their diagnosis. As one wrote, “I’ve always been tiny. Now, I’m average size. I gained 20 pounds on chemo. None of my clothes fit.”
Some people find that they gain weight because they crave certain types of food during treatment. One member shared, “I also wanted carby foods on frontline chemo. Veggies and fruit didn’t sound good at all.” Others gain weight because treatments have made them fatigued and reduced their ability to exercise: “I get depressed and tired easily,” one member described.
Other team members report gaining weight due to their maintenance drugs. “I’m on the Zejula PARP inhibitor,” wrote one. “They told me I might lose weight, but instead. I’m gaining.” However, they recognized the importance of continuing to take their medication, despite side effects like weight gain: “I am glad that the Zejula is doing what it’s supposed to do.”
According to the American Cancer Society and other cancer research, maintaining a healthy weight can reduce your risk of recurrence and overall cancer risk. If you have gained weight during ovarian cancer, talk to your health care team about making weight loss a part of your cancer care plan. As one team member shared, “I think this is the way to go: with a healthy diet, good lifestyle, and exercise to keep it from coming back as long as possible.”
When it comes to tackling your body weight, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. Setting small, realistic goals can help make change more attainable. Keep in mind that progress — not perfection — is what matters. Also important to keep in mind is the fact that getting enough sleep plays a big role in weight maintenance, as well.
You don’t need to go on a crash diet. Getting your diet back on track may take time, but it’s possible. Ask your oncologist for a referral to a registered dietitian who has experience working with people with cancer. A registered dietitian can work with you to devise a diet plan tailored to your unique needs, dietary preferences, or food aversions you’ve developed during treatment.
There are some adjustments you can make on your own, as well. If you have a hard time stomaching raw vegetables during or after treatment, you may want to try steaming vegetables or cooking them in soups, sauces, or roasting them with salt or other seasonings. Another helpful tip is to incorporate more lean protein into your diet — fish, seafood, poultry, and plant-based protein will leave you feeling satisfied longer and can help rebuild muscle mass lost during treatment. You can also do things like choosing brown rice over white rice, wheat bread over white bread, and limiting sugary foods like cookies, cakes, and soda.
Prepare food for when you are on the go. It can be difficult to control or know how many calories you are eating when away from home, so eating home-cooked meals is helpful for weight loss. If you know that you are going to be unable to cook, prepare some healthy meals to take along.
You may also want to keep a food journal or use a mobile app to help you stay accountable for what you are eating and why.
Exercising regularly is another way to lose weight and reduce your risk factors for ovarian cancer recurrence. Exercise can take any form, from gentle daily walks to weight training or resistance training. Keep it simple and do what you are capable of. If you are considering a new exercise regimen, talk to your doctor to make sure it is safe.
The American Cancer Society recommends that adults get up to five hours of moderate or two and a half hours of vigorous exercise a week. Using this information, set small goals for yourself. If you are not feeling well, start by making a goal to walk around the house a few times a day. As you begin feeling better, make your goals a little bit bigger. Make a promise to yourself that you will take a walk each day for at least 30 minutes, working your way up to one hour.
Exercise has other added benefits for those with ovarian cancer — it can help improve your mood if you are feeling down. Exercise has been shown to help reshape the brain and deter cognitive deterioration.
If you are experiencing weight gain during or after treatment, talk to your oncology specialist about possible causes.
Your doctor may ask you about fluid retention, bowel habits, eating habits, energy levels, and how you are generally feeling. Your doctor may be able to adjust the medicines you are on to help you stop gaining weight. They may also suggest a diet and exercise regimen for you.
The physical and emotional changes brought on by a cancer diagnosis can affect a person’s self-image. Mental health and body image often have a reciprocal relationship — noticing changes in your appearance may lead to negative emotions, which may, in turn, result in weight changes. If you find yourself struggling with your self-image or feeling depressed, ask for a referral to a therapist or counselor. These specialists can help you address these feelings, identify healthy ways of coping, and guide you through the changes that occur along your journey with ovarian cancer.
Learn about other ways to live well and support your health with ovarian cancer.
MyOvarianCancerTeam is the social network for people with ovarian cancer. Here, you can ask questions, share advice, and listen to the experiences of those managing day-to-day life with their diagnosis.
Have you experienced weight gain with ovarian cancer? Share your story in the comments below or by posting on MyOvarianCancerTeam.