Cancer cachexia

JPEN J Parenter Enteral Nutr. 1988 May-Jun;12(3):286-98. doi: 10.1177/0148607188012003286.


Cancer cachexia describes a syndrome of progressive weight loss, anorexia, and persistent erosion of host body cell mass in response to a malignant growth. Although often associated with preterminal patients bearing disseminated disease, cachexia may be present in the early stages of tumor growth before any signs or symptoms of malignancy. A decline in food intake relative to energy expenditure (which may be increased, normal, or decreased) is the fundamental physiologic derangement leading to cancer-associated weight loss. In addition, abnormalities of host carbohydrate, protein, and fat metabolism lead to continued mobilization and ineffective repletion of host tissue, despite adequate nutritional support. Mediators of cancer anorexia and associated abnormalities are unknown. Cachectin/TNF or other host-derived cytokines (produced as a defense against malignancy) have been implicated as signal molecules in cachexia, based upon similar metabolic derangements produced by these cytokines in other chronic wasting illnesses. Nutritional support is effective in maintaining body weight of cachectic cancer patients, but ineffective in maintaining lean body mass. Although in one study parenteral nutritional support has improved operative morbidity and mortality in cancer patients, it has not yet improved response to chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Because of metabolic derangements seen in cancer cachexia, effective nutritional treatment regimens will probably require manipulation of host intermediary metabolism in addition to feeding. Insulin therapy or exercise are two such methods which appear to preserve host composition by preferential feeding of the host at the expense of the tumor. Future studies which more clearly define the role of signal molecules in producing cancer cachexia syndrome may lead to new treatment strategies, possibly involving modulation of the effects of such molecules on host metabolism.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anorexia / etiology
  • Antineoplastic Agents / adverse effects
  • Body Weight
  • Cachexia / epidemiology
  • Cachexia / etiology*
  • Cachexia / physiopathology
  • Cachexia / therapy
  • Carbohydrate Metabolism
  • Eating
  • Energy Metabolism
  • Humans
  • Lipid Metabolism
  • Neoplasms / complications*
  • Proteins / metabolism


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Proteins