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What Is the Relationship between Cachexia and Cancer?

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  • Written By: S. Berger
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 24 November 2016
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Cachexia is a term that refers to weight loss, lack of appetite, and weakness that occurs in a variety of medical conditions, and persists even when an individual eats or consumes calories. There is a close relationship between cachexia and cancer, as this phenomenon occurs in approximately 50% of the individuals with this disease. Generally, this weight reduction is due to the loss of skeletal muscle and fatty tissue.

At times, cachexia and cancer occur together, but a loss of body tissue is noticed before any tumor is found. Individuals may lose their appetite when this occurs, but not necessarily, as the reduction in weight is actually due to the body expending more energy while resting. Tumors require large amounts of energy to grow, and they may turn on certain mechanisms in the body that cause fatty tissue and the proteins found in muscle cells to degrade. A cancer may then attempt to use the products of this metabolism, or breakdown of complex molecules, as a source of energy.

Proteins known as inflammatory cytokines seem to be linked to the cachexia process. Normally, these cytokines allow the body to mount an immune response against invading organisms, but when they are improperly activated, they may metabolize the body's own tissue. This process seems to persist even while resting, which is why the body's ability to replace cells and nutrients do not suffice to recover the weight that is lost.

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After cachexia and cancer have been detected, individuals may undertake efforts to control the causes and symptoms of each condition. Several potential methods exist for treating cachexia. Exercise might be difficult for an individual in ill health to do, but it can assist in helping to ensure that available energy is provided to the body instead of the tumor. Insulin therapy may also be employed, and this treatment helps to control available blood sugar. Both of these methods, when used among individuals with cachexia and cancer, seem to help control weight and health.

Other medicinal options exist for individuals showing both cachexia and cancer. Supplements, such as omega-3 fatty acids, may allow weight and appetite to increase. Antibody treatments have also been used to target and disable enzymes that are involved in the cachexia process. Drugs such as corticosteroids and medicinal marijuana may allow people with these conditions to have an improved appetite, although these therapies may not necessarily allow body weight to increase.

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