Have you ever noticed that a friend or family member will get diagnosed with mesothelioma or a different kind of cancer, and will be going along fine for a while then suddenly start to lose weight? This is actually a wasting syndrome called cachexia. Cachexia is defined by the American Cancer Society as “a profound state of general poor health and malnutrition – poor food intake – and/or poor food absorption.”
This syndrome affects more than half of all cancer patients and kills nearly 20 percent of them before the cancer can. It is characterized by muscle wasting, weight loss and protein degradation. This syndrome is not limited to cancer; it also affects patients with chronic illness. Doctors do not know what starts the syndrome or how to reverse it, but there is promising research to bring relief to the patients.
What starts cachexia? The research is focusing on molecular causes of this disease. The hope is that this will lead to more advanced treatments. One theory is that cachexia causes white fat cells, that store calories in the body, to turn into fat-burning brown cells that release heat – thus, burning calories. Cachexia is often a sign that the chronic illness that a patient has been battling is terminal.
Regardless of what turns the syndrome on, the effects leave the patient unable to receive additional treatment for their underlying condition. It is difficult for families and friends to see the patient exhausted and unable to enjoy the things that they used to. It affects all aspects of their lives.
As mesothelioma moves into a chronic disease, it is important to keep an eye on your loved one’s weight, and energy level. If they start losing weight, and are more tired than usual, make sure that you let the patient’s medical team know.
There were two studies published this month about cachexia – in the journal Nature and the journal Cell Metabolism. Also, a July 28 article by Yasmeen Abutaleb in the Boston Globe has an excellent explanation of the devastating physical and psychological effects cachexia has on patients and families.