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What is Cancer Cachexia?

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What is cancer cachexia (also called Cancer Anorexia Cachexia)?

This seemingly complicated term basically describes marked weight loss in patients with cancer that cannot be reversed by normal nutritional support. It has been described since ancient times, and is often referred to as cancer cachexia. However, due to improved understanding of its causes, it is now often called cancer anorexia-cachexia as this better defines the condition.1

As everyone knows, anorexia refers to reduced food intake, or starvation. Cachexia, however, is a wasting syndrome. Cachexia is associated with cancer and other chronic diseases where sufferers lose weight and experience decline of their overall health. Thus, Cancer Anorexia Cachexia is a combination of both starvation caused by anorexia and wasting syndrome due to cachexia.2

What happens during Cancer Anorexia Cachexia?

Cancer Anorexia Cachexia is due to a number of complex factors. A defining feature of cancer anorexia-cachexia is loss of muscle, but fat may be lost as well. The weight loss is involuntary, meaning that there is no desire or attempt to lose weight. In addition to muscle wasting and loss of appetite, patients who suffer from cancer anorexia-cachexia have a poor overall quality of life, and experience pain and fatigue. It also becomes more difficult for them to perform regular daily activities. Moreover, cancer anorexia-cachexia, at least in the more advanced stages, cannot be fully cured by eating more or by taking nutritional supplements.3,4

Cancer Anorexia Cachexia

  • Marked weight loss
  • Muscular loss
  • Resistant to normal therapies
  • Difficulties in performing routine activities and fatigue

Cancer Anorexia Cachexia usually gets worse over time as weight loss increases, which also leads to difficulties for patients with everyday activities. The syndrome may occur in stages that are defined by differences in food intake, weight loss, and ability to function. In the early or mild stages, patients may only notice a slight loss of appetite with little weight loss. As the condition gets worse, individuals will notice more weight loss and often eat even less. In severe stages, muscle wasting becomes obvious and the condition may be resistant to normal treatments such as dietary supplementation and nutritional support. Sufferers may also have great difficulties in performing routine activities.4,5

How common is Cancer Anorexia Cachexia?

Cachexia has been recognized for a long time as an adverse effect of cancer.6 Considering that one in four people will die of cancer, and that cachexia affects most patients with advanced disease, it is very common.7 The prevalence of cancer anorexia-cachexia depends greatly on the type of cancer, but 50% to 85% of subjects with gastrointestinal, pancreatic, lung, and colorectal cancer have weight loss when they are diagnosed and before they begin treatment.7 In the United States alone, it has been estimated that over 1.3 million people have cancer anorexia-cachexia.7 What surprises many is that cancer anorexia-cachexia is directly responsible for 20% of all cancer deaths, contributing to more than 7.4 million deaths worldwide each year.3,7

The bottom line

Cancer Anorexia Cachexia affects the majority of cancer patients. It is a large burden for both patients and their families, causes psychological suffering and affects their quality of life, physical functioning, response to anticancer treatment, and survival. It is therefore a serious condition that deserves more attention as it frequently overlooked and underestimated.3-7


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