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Cachexia (wasting syndrome)

You may hear this also called wasting syndrome or anorexia cachexia syndrome.

What it is

Cachexia (kak-ex-ee-a) comes from the Greek word kakos meaning bad and hexis meaning condition. Anorexia just means loss of appetite and is often associated with cachexia, but not always.

Cachexia is more than simply loss of appetite though. It is a very complex problem and involves changes in the way your body normally uses protein, carbohydrate, and fat. It leads to many problems including muscle wasting.

Cachexia is very different to general weight loss. It can’t be completely reversed even if you feel like eating.

Trying to eat more or being fed through a tube may not help reverse it either. People suffering from cachexia do not seem to feel hungry.

What happens with cachexia

We don't know exactly what happens in cachexia. Scientists think that the cancer releases chemicals into the blood that contributes to the loss of fat and muscle.

These chemicals may make your metabolism speed up so that you use up calories faster. Because your body is using up energy faster than it is getting it, you can have severe weight loss even if you are eating normally.

Symptoms of cachexia

Cachexia seems to be more common in people with lung cancer or with cancers anywhere in the digestive system. The main symptoms are:

  • severe loss of weight, including loss of fat and muscle mass
  • loss of appetite
  • feeling sick (nausea)
  • feeling full after eating small amounts
  • anaemia (low red blood cells)
  • weakness and fatigue

Who gets cachexia

It isn’t usual to get cachexia with the early stages of cancer. Up to 6 out of 10 people (60%) with advanced cancer develop some degree of cachexia.

Cachexia in advanced cancer can be very upsetting and make you feel very weak. It isn't just associated with cancer though.

It is common in the advanced stages of other illnesses such as heart disease, HIV and kidney disease.

Losing muscle and fat can make it look as though you are ‘wasting away’. This can all be made worse because of the side effects of cancer treatment you are having.

Information and help

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