Often times people experience sudden weight loss that sends them to see a doctor. All too often this is the symptom that leads to a cancer diagnosis. Cachexia-the loss of muscle mass associated with cancer-is a fancy word for an all too common symptom of newly diagnosed patients with advanced lung cancer. Every doctor knows cachexia when they see it, especially in patients with locally advanced lung cancer. Patients experience loss of muscle instead of fat because muscle is easier for the body to metabolize into the much needed calories. Cancer itself can also cause a dramatic inflammatory response which adds to this loss regardless of how many calories are eaten.
The overall weight loss and loss of muscle mass in cancer patients can be profound. Cachexia affects 50-80% of cancer patients. And the results of cachexia can lead to a continuing decline in overall health and continued impairment of immune function. Remarkably, cachexia is the direct cause of death in 20% of cancer patients. So patients with locally advanced lung cancer are already behind the 8 ball even before starting treatment, treatments that may include chemotherapy and radiation therapy. A vicious cycle starts that can lead to further loss of appetite and fatigue, compounding the cachexia.
But a recent study published in the journal Lancet Oncology shows that help is on the way for locally advanced lung cancer patients who suffer from cachexia (Lancet Oncology February 19, 2016) Dr. Jennifer Temel, a cancer specialist at Harvard’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, looked at 2 different phase 3 studies-the gold standard of clinical studies-of 979 patients with advanced cancer. 653 of these 997 patients were treated with the new drug Anamorelin and 326 were treated with a placebo-a pill with no active ingredients.
After only 12 weeks, those patients who took the drug Anamorelin gained weight compared with patients who took only the placebo. Of course, there were side effects-the main one was elevated blood sugar.
From my point of view as a cancer specialist, the studies with Anamorelin are a good start. Our advanced lung cancer patients need all the help that they can muster to help combat the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation therapy. More research will be needed to refine the role of Anamorelin to treat cancer related weight loss and muscle loss. But I’m glad that help is on the way.
If you have any questions about your cancer, please feel free to call me, Dr. Edward Hughes, at 855-DAYTON1