Cancer cachexia in the age of obesity: skeletal muscle depletion is a powerful prognostic factor, independent of body mass index

J Clin Oncol. 2013 Apr 20;31(12):1539-47. doi: 10.1200/JCO.2012.45.2722. Epub 2013 Mar 25.


Purpose: Emerging evidence suggests muscle depletion predicts survival of patients with cancer.

Patients and methods: At a cancer center in Alberta, Canada, consecutive patients with cancer (lung or GI; N = 1,473) were assessed at presentation for weight loss history, lumbar skeletal muscle index, and mean muscle attenuation (Hounsfield units) by computed tomography (CT). Univariate and multivariate analyses were conducted. Concordance (c) statistics were used to test predictive accuracy of survival models.

Results: Body mass index (BMI) distribution was 17% obese, 35% overweight, 36% normal weight, and 12% underweight. Patients in all BMI categories varied widely in weight loss, muscle index, and muscle attenuation. Thresholds defining associations between these three variables and survival were determined using optimal stratification. High weight loss, low muscle index, and low muscle attenuation were independently prognostic of survival. A survival model containing conventional covariates (cancer diagnosis, stage, age, performance status) gave a c statistic of 0.73 (95% CI, 0.67 to 0.79), whereas a model ignoring conventional variables and including only BMI, weight loss, muscle index, and muscle attenuation gave a c statistic of 0.92 (95% CI, 0.88 to 0.95; P < .001). Patients who possessed all three of these poor prognostic variables survived 8.4 months (95% CI, 6.5 to 10.3), regardless of whether they presented as obese, overweight, normal weight, or underweight, in contrast to patients who had none of these features, who survived 28.4 months (95% CI, 24.2 to 32.6; P < .001).

Conclusion: CT images reveal otherwise occult muscle depletion. Patients with cancer who are cachexic by the conventional criterion (involuntary weight loss) and by two additional criteria (muscle depletion and low muscle attenuation) share a poor prognosis, regardless of overall body weight.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Body Composition
  • Body Mass Index*
  • Cachexia / diagnosis
  • Cachexia / etiology*
  • Cachexia / mortality
  • Canada / epidemiology
  • Cancer Care Facilities
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Gastrointestinal Neoplasms / complications*
  • Gastrointestinal Neoplasms / mortality
  • Gastrointestinal Neoplasms / therapy
  • Humans
  • Lung Neoplasms / complications*
  • Lung Neoplasms / mortality
  • Lung Neoplasms / therapy
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Muscle, Skeletal / pathology*
  • Neoplasm Staging
  • Obesity / epidemiology*
  • Prognosis
  • Risk Factors
  • Survival Rate