Sheila Wanjiku was distraught whenever she looked at her father’s emaciating body. He ate right, took his medicine, but in the three years following his cancer diagnosis, Muiruri Kariuki lost his appetite, was malnourished and involuntarily lost weight. He sadly died in March 2017. Unknown to Muiruri such muscle loss can be fatal. In fact, one in three cancer patients dies as a result of muscle loss and not from cancer itself. This is according to decade-long findings by researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s Department of Biomedical Laboratory Science, Faculty of Natural Sciences.
This cancer complication causes the shrinking, weakening of muscles and the overzealous breaking down of skeletal muscle and adipose tissue, which stores fat.
The condition, also known as cancer cachexia not only leads to fatigue, loss of appetite, malnutrition, dramatic and involuntary weight loss, but also reduces a patient’s ability to tolerate cancer treatment. This exposes the body to infections, reduces the quality of life of the patient.
Catherine Nyongesa-Watta, head of the Cancer Treatment Centre at the Kenyatta National Hospital explains up to “80 per cent of advanced cancer patients will experience cachexia”. The oncologist told HealthyNation: “Cancer cachexia has a negative effect on function, treatment tolerance.” Cachexia, which has no treatment, occurs in many cancers, usually at the advanced stages of disease. It is most commonly seen in pancreatic, gastric, lung, oesophageal, colorectal, and head and neck cancers. Cachexia is also seen in people with Aids and chronic forms of kidney disease and heart failure, alongside those who have suffered severe trauma and burns. The Norwegian study further shows that a tumour in one part of the body in a cancer patient can cause muscle loss beyond the site of the lump. The scientists, in understanding cachexia, have singled out two proteins that are released by the cancer tumours which then trigger muscle deterioration in patients. The proteins instruct muscle cells to break down much faster than they should resulting in the loss of muscle mass over time.
The study published in the Journal of Cachexia, Sarcopenia and Muscle, recommends removing the tumour in patients with cachexia so that muscle mass can return to normal. However, this is not always possible as the tumour may be inaccessible, the cancer might have spread and because the cancer treatment used may not be effective. The scientists suggest preventing the cancer cells by limiting the production and functioning of the two proteins to prevent muscle wasting. Successful tests have been tried on mice with cancer, but there is no evidence whether this would work in humans.