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Cancer Cachexia Explained

Nutrition is one of the few things you can control when dealing with cancer, so why are so many cancer patients dying from malnutrition?

Taking the initiative to optimize nutritional intake and to seek nutritional counseling will empower you and your loved ones to make a difference in response to treatment and overall quality of life.


What is Cancer Cachexia?

Weight loss is a major risk factor for dying of cancer. While scientists and doctors don’t understand the exact way nutrition influences cancer survival rates, we know it’s important.

Cancer Anorexia-Cachexia Syndrome is more than just weight loss. It’s a form of extreme malnutrition resulting from the loss of both lean and fat mass, a wasting syndrome. Up to 80% of patients with advanced cancer will be diagnosed with cancer cachexia, and cancer cachexia is a cause of death in up to half of all cancer patients [i].


Treating Cachexia

Getting more calories isn’t enough to reverse the underlying metabolic abnormalities of cachexia. The syndrome is multifactorial, caused by reduced food intake and abnormal metabolism induced by tumor and host derived factors.

The tumor derived factors and pro-inflammatory cytokines stimulate inflammation. Inflammation drives neuroendocrine response and metabolic alternations, which lead to loss of lean body mass and adipose tissue.

 Once it’s diagnosed, there are no standard best practices for treating Cancer Cachexia and no FDA Approved Standard Effective Pharmacotherapeutic Options to prevent or treat this syndrome. It’s critical to prevent cachexia.


Preventing Cachexia

Talking to an oncology dietitian before treatment is the best way to prevent cachexia. Cancer patients should be screened for nutritional issues from the time of diagnosis. 

Signs of malnutrition include:

  • reduced caloric intake,
  • weight loss over time,
  • physical body changes, including:
    • body fat loss,
    • muscle mass loss,
    • fluid accumulation, and
    • reduced grip strength.


Eating around Side Effects of Treatment

Patients and caregivers need support to ensure they get proper nutrition and minimize side effects. 

Many cancer treatments can cause side effects such as changes in appetite and taste, mouth sores, gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and constipation as well as unintended weight loss. Addressing these issues helps patients maintain and strengthen their body. 

Nutritional coaching from an oncology dietitian can:

  • reduce infection risk,
  • strengthen immune function,
  • preserve lean body mass,
  • enhance response to treatment,
  • improve the ability to tolerate side effects,
  • extend survival time, and
  • improve quality of life.

Early identification and treatment of nutrition-related symptoms stabilized or reversed weight loss in 50% to 88% of cancer patients [ii][iii].  Nutrition counseling was more beneficial than simply supplementing a patient’s diet [iv].An oncology specialized registered dietitian can help limit or ameliorate nutritional deterioration. A trained oncology dietitian will assess the unique experience of each patient and set forth a nutrition plan to combat the onset of cancer anorexia-cachexia syndrome. Book your appointment today.


[i] Gullet, N.P; Mazurak, V; Hebbarm G; Ziegler, T.R. Nutritional interventions for cancer-induced cachexia. 2012. Curr Probl Cancer. 35(2): 58-90
[ii] Ottery, F.D., Kasenic, S., DeBolt, S., et al. (1998). Volunteer network accrues >1900 patients in 6 months to validate standardized nutritional triage. Proceedings of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, 17: A-282, 73a.
[iii] Isenring, E.A., Capra, S., Bauer, J.D. (2004). Nutrition intervention is beneficial in oncology outpatients receiving radiotherapy to the gastrointestinal or head and neck area. British Journal of Cancer, 91(3): 447-52. PMID: 15226773. 
[iv ]Jager-Wittenaar, H., Djikstra, P.U., van Oort, R.P. et al. (2010). Malnutrition in patients treated for oral or oropharyngeal cancer-prevalence and relationship with oral symptoms: an explorative study. Support Care in Cancer, (Epub ahead of print). PMID: 20844902.
Angela Hummel

Angela is a registered dietitian and certified specialist in oncology nutrition (CSO). She studied nutrition at Central Michigan University, where she completed her bachelor’s degree, dietetic internship, and master’s degree. Angela has worked in the inpatient, outpatient, and community oncology settings since 2005 and currently works part time at the Reading Health System. Angela’s passion to help oncology patients has developed from learning the nutritional demands of cancer and seeing the improvement that nutritional modification can provide. Angela is part of the clinical team at Savor Health where she counsels patients on oncology nutrition issues and contributes to clinical website and other Savor Health content.

  1. Thank you for work! I have a loved one who has recently been diagnosed with head and neck cancer. It was suggested to have a feeding tube with radiation and chemo. Her family is suggesting IV therapies of vitamins and minerals with a naturopath. Could you give me any feedback about this? There doesn’t seem to be a plethora of info out there to peruse.


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