If you’re a Cancer patient and you’ve never heard the word “cachexia”, it’s time to add another practitioner to the conversation.
Dramatic weight loss is one of the most memorable physical symptoms when thinking about cancer patients nearing the end of their lives. The wasting, termed “cachexia” surprisingly is not related to lack of appetite, or vomiting from chemotherapy. It is actually due to chemical and hormonal changes that cancer cells cause in the body, that leads to muscle loss and overall weight loss in most types of cancer.
In my experience, weight is something that is rarely discussed as part of ongoing cancer care. Patients could be dropping 1-5 pounds between chemotherapy treatments, and never be weighed, or given additional support for this symptom of their disease. Remarkably, maintaining your weight is an independent predictor of your overall survival, and can predict the remission of your disease. It is a completely under-harnessed part of your health, that if treated appropriately, can help patients in almost every avenue of their care.
It’s common for cancer patients to be happy about their initial weight loss, believing that they were overweight at diagnosis, and the weight loss is actually a “healthier” alternative. Although fat loss improves cancer survival in many cases, the weight loss experienced with cachexia is actually loss from muscle, not fat. Which is why it is so important to have your weight tracked and overall health assessed.
So if this process is innate to Cancer, can we do anything to change it?
Although cachexia is a unique switch in your metabolism, there are integrative strategies that can slow weight loss, or improve muscle gain during cancer treatment. Here are some evidence-based integrative therapies that should be explored with every single cancer patient, whether or not they were overweight at the time of their diagnosis.
1. Fish Oil
Fish oil is our best studied nutrient in cachexia care, with high doses of certain oils being used to halt weight loss. Doses may vary depending on cancer type, and staging of disease, but overall there is a slowing of muscle loss in patients on Omega 3 fats from fish. Fish oil appears to lower inflammatory processes in the body that are triggering muscle wasting.
Carnitine is best known in cancer care as a nutrient for nerve health during chemotherapy. Carnitine has been studied with fish oil, alone, and in combination with conventional drugs for weight loss. In all studies, Carnitine shows improvement in markers of inflammation, that are directly correlated to weight loss in cachexia. Patients who were given Carnitine show improvements in lean muscle tissue, and a reduction in weight loss due to their cancer.
3. Nutritional Support
Nutrition is one area I spend a significant amount of time discussing with my cancer patients. After a diagnosis, patients can expect to receive hoards of advice on diet from friends, relatives (and strangers I’m sure). This is challenging because much of the anecdotal evidence is conflicting. Is meat terrible? or should you just drink juice? The truth is, a comprehensive treatment plan that ensures adequate levels of protein, and specific amino acids to support muscle health is the only science based nutrition-thearpy for the weight loss seen with cancer. That said, diet is rarely addressed in conventional care settings, which leaves this area of health barely able to reach its potential.
Not every cancer patient is eligible for more aggressive therapies such as Intravenous Vitamin C, however each and every Cancer patient could benefit from understanding their weight loss, and using simple steps to overcome the inflammation causing it.
Ask your oncologist about cachexia, but turn to your Naturopath to treat it.