Why you might need tube feeding

In some situations you might need feeding through a tube when you have cancer.

When you might have it

You are likely to have tube feeding if you:

  • can't absorb nutrients very well from your gut
  • are very run down and severely malnourished before surgery
  • are malnourished before starting chemotherapy or radiotherapy
  • have problems with swallowing due to a cancer in the head or neck area
  • have holes (fistulas) or an abscess in the food pipe (oesophagus) or stomach
  • can't eat or drink for 5 days or more after an operation or other types of treatment
  • have a severely sore mouth or throat after a stem cell or bone marrow transplant

How you have it

You might have a feed:

  • through a tube into your stomach or small bowel (enteral nutrition)
  • into your bloodstream through a drip into your vein (parenteral nutrition)

Extra nourishment before a major operation

Before a major operation, tube feeding might help if you are severely malnourished.

Doctors usually suggest extra high calorie, high protein drinks. You have these from 8 to 10 days before your operation. But they may suggest feeds through a tube into your stomach.

It will help you to recover afterwards if you can build yourself up before your operation. You may not gain weight, but your overall health will improve. This helps you heal faster and cope with the demands of a big operation.

Extra nourishment before treatment

In some situations, a tube feed into the stomach or bowel before treatment may help you. This can be before a course of chemotherapy or radiotherapy. It could help you put on weight and may improve your general health.

A tube feed is most likely to help you if you have a head and neck cancer. You might be malnourished already and have problems swallowing before you start treatment. There is no evidence that it makes cancer treatment work any better.

These feeding methods might help you feel better if you have advanced cancer and can't eat. There is no real evidence that it would reverse cachexia.

Last reviewed: 
30 Mar 2020
Next review due: 
30 Mar 2023
  • Nutrition and Cancer
    Edited by Clare Shaw
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2011

  • Nutrition support for adults: oral nutrition support, enteral tube feeding and parenteral nutrition (CG32)

    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE),  August 2017

  • The role of parenteral and enteral/oral nutritional support in patients with cancer

    A Jatoi and others

    UpToDate website

    Accessed March 2020

  • Enteral and parenteral nutrition in cancer patients: a systematic review and meta-analysis

    R Chow and others

    Annals of Palliative Medicine. 2016; 5(1):30–4

  • The Efficacy of Oral Nutritional Intervention in Malnourished Cancer Patients: a Systemic Review

    J Kim and M Sung

    Clinical Nutrition Research. 2016 October; 5(4): 219–236.

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. If you need additional references for this information please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular issue you are interested in.

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