Feeding tubes: What cancer patients and caregivers should know
Kellie Bramlet Blackburn
Maintaining proper nutrition during cancer treatment is important. When cancer patients struggle with this, a feeding tube can be a solution. These flexible plastic tubes placed in the stomach can help provide the calories, protein, vitamins, minerals and fluids needed to help the body fight infection, heal and stay healthy – all crucial during cancer treatment.
But the idea of a feeding tube can be daunting. Even though a feeding tube may be essential for helping you maintain a healthy, active life during and after cancer treatment, it can be a big lifestyle change.
We asked senior clinical dietitian Daxaben Amin what cancer patients should know about feeding tubes.
When do cancer patients need a feeding tube?
Cancer patients may need a feeding tube if they:
Have trouble swallowing due to cancer in the head or neck area
Have fistulas, an opening, or an abscess in the esophagus or stomach
How is a feeding tube inserted?
The way a feeding tube is placed depends on the type of feeding tube you need. There are three types of feeding tubes commonly used:
Nasogastric tube (NG-tube): This flexible tube is passed through the nose, down the esophagus and into the stomach. It is placed at the patient’s bedside in the hospital and doesn’t require a surgical procedure. It is often temporary and given to patients who can’t eat for a short period of time following surgery.
Gastrostomy tube (G-tube): This tube is inserted through the belly and brings food directly to the stomach. It can be placed during an outpatient procedure and does not require the patient to stay overnight. This tube is often used when patients will need to rely on a feeding tube for about three to four months or longer. It’s very easy to use.
Jejunostomy tube (J-tube): A J-tube is a soft, plastic tube placed through the skin of the belly into the midsection of the small intestine. It can be placed as an inpatient or outpatient procedure. The tube delivers food and medicine until the person is healthy enough to eat by mouth. It bypasses the stomach completely and is often used when the patient cannot digest food in the stomach, like in some cases of stomach cancer. This tube is also best-suited for long-term use.
Will patients feel their feeding tubes?
Again, this depends on the type of tube. Patients typically can feel an NG-tube, but the good news is, it’s only used for a few days or weeks.
With the longer-term tubes, like G-tubes and J-tubes, patients may experience some initial pain and discomfort, but it should fade after a day or two.
How do feeding tubes work?
Different tubes work in different ways. Some use a pump – typically formula. Others rely on gravity or a syringe to push the food. Your care team will teach you how to use your specific feeding tube.
Can patients operate feeding tubes by themselves?
Yes, all three types of the common feeding tubes mentioned above can be operated by the patients themselves. But depending on their physical and mental health, they may need help from a caregiver or health care provider.
At MD Anderson, we provide classes for patients and caregivers to prepare them to use feeding tubes.
Are there any side effects from using a feeding tube?
Usually, there are no side effects from the tube itself. Some patients may experience some nausea, vomiting or diarrhea, but this can be addressed by adjusting how much formula is given and how much time the feeding takes. If these side effects continue, your doctor can prescribe anti-nausea medicine.
It’s also important to properly clean the feeding tube and the area surrounding it as instructed by your care team. Otherwise, the patient is at risk of infection. If a patient has an infection, the skin around the feeding tube will look red and swollen.
Patients with feeding tubes might feel self-conscious. What are some ways to cope with the stigma or fear of stigma surrounding feeding tubes?
Feeding tubes are very easy to hide under clothes. Many of our patients go back to work after having a feeding tube installed, and their co-workers have no idea they have a feeding tube.
With closer family and friends, we recommend educating them about your condition and showing them how the feeding tube works. If you’re comfortable, get your caregiver involved, and teach them how to use the feeding tube. A straightforward approach is typically best.