Treating Cancer Anorexia
Anorexia is a condition characterized by a lack of desire to eat. It is very common in patients with life-threatening diseases, including asbestosis and asbestos lung cancer, i.e., mesothelioma.
When mesothelioma cancer or its treatments lead to anorexia, the condition is called "cancer anorexia." Around 50 percent of patients diagnosed with cancer experience cancer anorexia and other eating abnormalities. Among terminally ill cancer patients the figure is closer to 65 percent.*
Because cancer patients need extra energy to fight the disease, the onset of anorexia marks a very dangerous turning point. Cancer anorexia can also contribute to the development of cachexia ("wasting syndrome"), which in turn causes dramatic weight loss. This volatile combination of conditions, sometimes referred to as anorexia-cachexia syndrome, is often at the heart of a mesothelioma patient’s quick demise.
While there is no cure for malignant mesothelioma, patients can slow the disease’s progress and lessen the unpleasant effects of mesothelioma symptoms such as malnutrition by devising a plan to combat anorexia.
Anorexia is common in people with asbestos related cancers such as mesothelioma for several reasons. Tumor growth causes patients’ metabolism and certain other bodily functions to change, and this can lead to a variety of problems, including anorexia. Mesothelioma also leads to changes in the central nervous system that can suppress appetite. Other factors that can lead to loss of appetite in cancer patients include the following:
- Stomach pain
- Dysphagia (difficulty swallowing)
- Early satiety (fullness)
In addition to conditions that go hand in hand with the disease itself, mesothelioma treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy can lead to anorexia.
Effects of Cancer Anorexia
The effects of cancer anorexia are usually devastating. Highlighting the seriousness of the condition is the fact that, in some cases, excessive weight loss caused by anorexia, rather than the cancer itself, is the ultimate cause of death. Patients essentially waste away due to lack of nutrition.
Once a patient begins to lose his or her appetite, a series of very harmful events may be set into motion. Anorexia can quickly lead to malnutrition, which affects a patient’s ability to fight off infection and maintain the energy necessary to withstand mesothelioma treatment oftentimes, these are the same treatments that helped contribute to loss of appetite in the first place. This vicious circle can contribute to a downward spiral in the patient’s health.
This deterioration is typically compounded by the onset of other conditions, most notably the loss of fat, skeletal muscle and adipose tissue (loose connective tissue containing fat cells). This condition is called cachexia. In the latter stages of cancer, many patients have little chance of fending off the combined force of anorexia-cachexia syndrome. The lack of calories and weight lost as a result of both conditions deprives the patient of the energy and ability to fend of infection necessary to fight mesothelioma. Sadly, the prognosis of patients who develop anorexia-cachexia syndrome is bleak.
As with many diseases, the first line of defense against anorexia is prevention. People who notice any of the conditions listed in the causes section of this article, or any of following symptoms, should consider scheduling a visit with their primary care provider.
- Changes in taste
- Changes in smell
- Aversion to meat
Although these symptoms and conditions are often completely unrelated to cancer, they may be a sign of other conditions. For those with mesothelioma and other forms of cancer, it is imperative that action be taken to prevent, or at least minimize, the effects of anorexia.
Malignant mesothelioma patients should also ask their oncologists about nutritional strategies and drug therapies used to prevent or reduce the effects of anorexia.
Good nutrition is key to the health of any individual. It is even more important to the survival of a person suffering from anorexia, cachexia and/or malignant mesothelioma. However, the nutritional needs of a patient with these conditions differ significantly from those of the average person. A diet devised with this in mind can help a patient maintain strength and body weight. A registered dietician can help patients create an appropriate nutrition plan. For more information on this subject, please see our article on diet and nutrition for mesothelioma patients.
Many of the drugs used to combat cancer anorexia are considered experimental, but some have proved to be relatively effective in certain cases. Some medications have been shown to improve food intake (and to a lesser extent, body weight) and relieve the symptoms of anorexia. While most drugs are not suitable for all patients, there may be medications that can improve your quality of life.
Your Role in the Fight
Though most oncologists recognize the importance of preventing or at least minimizing the effects of cancer anorexia, a smaller percentage are adequately trained to tackle the condition from all angles. Surveys have shown that many oncologists are not in regular contact with the sort of palliative, or supportive, specialists needed to help mesothelioma cancer patients address the the effects of anorexia. As a result, your input is crucial to the effectiveness of your battle against anorexia, cachexia and malignant mesothelioma. Make sure to ask your oncologist about nutritional strategies and drug therapies that may help you in your fight.
[Page updated February 2009]