Resources for Patients and their Families

Cachexia and Anorexia

Cachexia, or “Wasting Disorder,” is a problem faced by many patients with cancer, including those with mesothelioma. It is characterized by weight loss, the loss of muscle tone, and the onset of anorexia in people with cancer. Both a patient’s Adipose and skeletal muscle is compromised. Sometimes, a patient experiences the aforementioned symptoms, visits their doctor, and is then diagnosed with cancer; in other instances, cachexia begins after a person has been diagnosed. Most doctors report signs of cachexia in patients who have been in remission, but learn that their cancer has returned, and in cancers that are not responding to treatments like chemotherapy.

Cachexia is one of the ways that a person’s body reacts to the growth of a malignant tumor somewhere in the body. It is not, however, affected by the size of a cancerous tumor. People with small tumors can also develop the disorder.

What Causes Cachexia?

There are, in a sense, two types of cachexia. Some patients continue to eat normally, per their doctor’s orders, but their body simply refuses to utilize the nutrients that the body is ingesting. On the other hand, some cancer patients stop eating because their illness has caused them to lose their appetite, and the body develops cachexia as a result. When a person begins to starve themselves deliberately, this is known as anorexia.

Researchers note that anorexia is typically not the primary cause of wasting disorder. Cachexia is connected to the patient’s metabolism and tissue catabolism. When a patient has cancer, the synthesis of proteins decreases, and the abasement of proteins increase, and thusly the body cannot properly metabolize the nutrients that it is provided with. Patients may lose up to 20% of their body weight when suffering from cachexia. Patients with cachexia and anorexia may lose far more.

How is Cachexia Treated?

The only way to manage a patient’s cachexia is to control their cancer. A patient suffering from wasting disorder that begins to respond to conventional cancer management methods, such as radiation, will eventually see the symptoms of cachexia diminish. Increased caloric intake is not a solution for cachexia, as weight gain will generally be too minimal and occur in the Adipose tissue, and not the muscles. Weight gain and increased muscle tone is the only way to diminish the symptoms of wasting disorder.

Sometimes, though, doctors recommend the use of Corticosteroids, which increase a patient’s appetite and may also improve their mood. While this does not alleviate cachexia entirely, it may make a noticeable difference in some patients. The use of medical marijuana may also be implemented in cancer sufferers with cachexia, although it will not increase their weight gain.

Some physicians work with a nutritionist to determine what type of foods a patient with cachexia should be eating. They may maximize protein intake and suggest vitamins.

Anorexia and Cancer Patients

Many people may not know that a large number of people suffering from cancers such as malignant mesothelioma may develop anorexia, an eating disorder that occurs when a person begins to restrict their food intake. Anorexia usually stems from distorted body image, low self-esteem, and other emotional and mental disorders. Anorexic people begin to lose weight and go so far as to starve completely in an attempt to avoid gaining weight.

In many cancer sufferers, depression due to their illness leads to the adoption of anorexic behaviors. Sometimes, other factors, such as the treatment they are enduring or the medication they are taking, results in the patient losing their appetite and simply refusing to eat. The National Cancer Institute reports that “almost all” people with advanced cancer develop anorexia. Patients with cancer of the lung, pancreas, and upper gastrointestinal cancers are more likely to develop anorexia, but it remains the most commonly diagnosed cause of cancer patient malnutrition.

How is Anorexia Treated in Patients with Cancer?

The most important way to avoid anorexia is to establish proper nutrition and eating habits at the onset of a patient’s cancer diagnosis. A patient may undergo nutritional therapy, be ordered to follow a strict diet and be monitored by a nutritionist or nurse during mealtime. In addition, anorexics typically undergo serious psychotherapy, may be prescribed antidepressants, and may also attend mandatory support group meetings with other people who suffer from anorexia.

Supporting Cancer Patients with Anorexia

A patient who develops an eating disorder like anorexia requires special care and support. An oncologist who is treating a cancer patient with anorexia will probably enlist the assistance of a counselor or psychotherapist, as well as a nutritionist. While the patient may be resistant at first, the oncologist may recommend group meetings for the patient, and the patient’s family and friends may also be ordered to attend. It is important to stress to the patient that proper nutrition is an essential part of managing their cancer, but to avoid being judgmental or harsh with the individual who is suffering.



National Cancer Institute


National Association for Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD)

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