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Cachexia in Cancer


Robert Peter Gale

, MD, PhD, DSC(hc), Imperial College London

Reviewed/Revised Aug 2022 | Modified Sep 2022

Cachexia is wasting of both adipose tissue and skeletal muscle. It occurs in many conditions and is common with many cancers when their control fails. Some cancers, especially pancreatic and gastric cancers, cause profound cachexia. Affected patients may lose 10 to 20% of their body weight. Men tend to experience worse cachexia due to cancer than women do. Neither tumor size nor the extent of metastatic disease predicts the degree of cachexia. Cachexia is associated with reduced response to chemotherapy (see also Overview of Cancer Therapy Overview of Cancer Therapy Curing cancer requires eliminating all cells capable of causing cancer recurrence in a person's lifetime. The major modalities of therapy are Surgery (for local and local-regional disease) Radiation... read more ), poor functional performance, and increased mortality.

The primary cause of cachexia is not anorexia or decreased caloric intake. Rather, this complex metabolic condition involves increased tissue catabolism; protein synthesis is decreased and degradation increased. Cachexia is mediated by certain cytokines, especially tumor necrosis factor-alpha, IL-1b, and IL-6, which are produced by tumor cells and host cells in the tissue mass. The adenosine triphosphate (ATP)–ubiquitin-protease pathway plays a role as well.

Cachexia is easy to recognize, primarily by weight loss, which is most apparent with loss of temporalis muscle mass in the face (Hippocratic facies). The loss of subcutaneous fat increases the risk of pressure injury over bony prominences.

Treatment of Cachexia in Cancer

Treatment involves treatment of the cancer. If the cancer can be controlled or cured, cachexia resolves.

Adequate nutrition for the patient's age, size, and activity level should be a target; additional caloric supplementation is often given. Any weight gain is usually minimal and is likely to consist of adipose tissue rather than muscle. Neither function nor prognosis is improved. Thus, in most patients with cancer and cachexia, high-calorie supplementation is not recommended. Parenteral nutritional support is not indicated except in situations where oral intake of adequate nutrition is impossible.

Other interventions can sometimes mitigate cachexia and improve function. Corticosteroids increase appetite and may improve a sense of well-being but do little to increase body weight. Likewise, cannabinoids (marijuana, dronabinol) increase appetite but not weight. Progestogens, such as megestrol acetate, 40 mg orally 2 or 3 times a day, may increase both appetite and body weight. Drugs to alter cytokine production and effects are being studied. Androgenic steroids are sometimes given but may adversely affect liver function and potentially accelerate growth of some cancers such as prostate cancer.

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Drug Name Select Trade
Marinol, SYNDROS
Megace, Megace ES
NOTE: This is the Professional Version. CONSUMERS: View Consumer Version
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