Treating Cancer Cachexia: "Wasting Syndrome"

Cachexia, or “wasting syndrome,” is a loss of skeletal muscle and adipose tissue that occurs in the late stages of cancers such as mesothelioma, as well as with other degenerative diseases. Researchers estimate that up to 75% of late-stage cancer patients suffer from cachexia.

Cancer Cachexia occurs simultaneously along with cancer anorexia, which has led to the formation of the term anorexia-cachexia syndrome to describe the resulting condition. In addition to causing dramatic weight loss, discomfort, and pain, the syndrome tends to mark the beginning of the rapid decline in the health of mesothelioma patients.

Naturally, therefore, delaying the onset of the syndrome is of the utmost importance, and working to minimize it’s effects once it does begin is critical to lengthening and increasing the quality of the patient’s life. Certain nutritional strategies as well as some drug therapies have proven relatively effective in preventing loss of appetite from triggering cachexia and worsening its effects.

Causes and Effects of Cancer Cachexia

Cachexia is caused by a number of factors, including changes in metabolism, immune system function, and inadequate intake of calories. In the case of malignant Mesothelioma, scientists originally believed that cachexia was caused by tumors robbing the body of necessary nutrients. Recently, however, studies have shown that tumors actually function by producing substances that inhibit the functioning of the liver and prevent it from producing protein.

Cachexia is extremely destructive to the body. Because of the lack of nutrients, the body tries to find the nutrition it needs elsewhere, namely skeletal muscle and adipose tissue. The weight loss caused by this process alone is worsened by the loss of appetite many cancer patients feel naturally in conjunction with their treatment and symptoms and by the speeding up of the metabolism cancer causes. Additionally, cachexia can impede the patient’s ability to fight off infection and to undergo mesothelioma treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation.

Unlike weight loss from anorexia, weight loss from cachexia cannot be remedied by changing one’s diet. During the early stages of mesothelioma, however, a diet plan that addresses the patient’s needs can help to prevent infection and tolerate treatment. This is why it is so important that mesothelioma patients do everything they can to maintain proper nutrition and avoid the effects of cachexia for as long as possible.

Cancer Cachexia Treatments

Studies have revealed some treatments that may delay the progress of cachexia. While changes in diet cannot reverse the effects of the disease, increased protein intake in patients with cancer cachexia is critical to minimize the loss of muscle mass. Drug and hormone treatments are sometimes prescribed to slow the breakdown of protein and reduce inflammation. Some classes of drugs usually prescribed for cachexia include: statins, anabolic steroids, cyphroheptadine/anti-serotonergic agents and metoclopramide. If you are interested in learning the specifics of how these medications work, speak with your doctor.

Recently, experiments have begun with a number of new treatments including thalidomide, megestrol, melatonin, and even simple over the counter drugs like ibuprofen. In addition, some evidence suggests that consuming fish oil can preserve protein and reduce inflammation using omega-3 fatty acids. Creatin, which is used by athletes to maintain muscle mass, is also under investigation.

What You Can Do

Unfortunately, most mesothelioma patients with cachexia have a very grim prognosis. Measures taken to combat cachexia will not stop mesothelioma from progressing, and cachexia itself indicates that the disease is very far along in development. The real goal is to slow the progression of the disease and improve the patient’s quality of life as much as possible. In some cases, this can be accomplished through drugs and nutrition, which can alleviate symptoms and help the patient tolerate treatments.


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