Cancer Cachexia: Beyond Weight Loss

J Oncol Pract. 2016 Nov;12(11):1163-1171. doi: 10.1200/JOP.2016.016832.


Cancer cachexia is a multifactorial syndrome characterized by skeletal muscle loss leading to progressive functional impairment. Despite the ubiquity of cachexia in clinical practice, prevention, early identification, and intervention remain challenging. The impact of cancer cachexia on quality of life, treatment-related toxicity, physical function, and mortality are well established; however, establishing a clinically meaningful definition has proven challenging because of the focus on weight loss alone. Attempts to more comprehensively define cachexia through body composition, physical functioning, and molecular biomarkers, while promising, are yet to be routinely incorporated into clinical practice. Pharmacologic agents that have not been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration but that are currently used in cancer cachexia (ie, megestrol, dronabinol) may improve weight but not outcomes of interest such as muscle mass, physical activity, or mortality. Their routine use is limited by adverse effects. For the practicing oncologist, early identification and management of cachexia is critical. Oncologists must recognize cachexia beyond weight loss alone, focusing instead on body composition and physical functioning. In fact, becoming emaciated is a late sign of cachexia that characterizes its refractory stage. Given that cachexia is a multifactorial syndrome, it requires early identification and polymodal intervention, including optimal cancer therapy, symptom management, nutrition, exercise, and psychosocial support. Consequently, oncologists have a role in ensuring that these resources are available to their patients. In addition, in light of the promising investigational agents, it remains imperative to refer patients with cachexia to clinical trials so that available options can be expanded to effectively treat this pervasive problem.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biomarkers
  • Body Composition
  • Cachexia* / drug therapy
  • Cachexia* / etiology
  • Exercise
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / complications*
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy
  • Weight Loss


  • Biomarkers