Weight loss vs Bloating in Cancer Patients – Causes, Risks, and What to do

Cancer affects each body differently. Some patients may experience substantial weight loss. Others, on the other hand, may constantly feel bloated or full as a consequence of their disease and treatment. Either way, cancer patients must be wary of the possible problems and complications these two conditions might indicate. This article serves to provide a brief guide covering cancer-related weight loss and bloating. Find out what causes these two, the risks involved, and more. 

Weight loss vs. Bloating: Which should concern you more?

Cancer patients experience weight changes due to varying factors. Some lose a few pounds, while others become bigger and heavier during the course of their disease and treatment.

Weight loss, in particular, is associated with almost every type of cancer, especially pancreas, gastrointestinal, and lung cancers. Meanwhile, people diagnosed with breast, prostate, or ovarian cancers are likely to experience weight gain or bloating.

Between the two, weight loss is the more common condition affecting most cancer patients. Current literature provides that cancer-related weight loss occurs in up to 80% of patients with advanced disease. Meanwhile, bloating is often associated with only a few types of cancer. This makes weight loss the more dominant cause of concern among patients. About 22% to 40% of all cancer deaths are linked to cancer-related weight loss.

Still, both conditions can affect patients’ tolerance towards their treatment, their quality of life, and their overall survival rate. Hence, it’s important to see a medical professional if a person diagnosed with cancer experiences weight loss or bloating. 

One can easily distinguish cancer-related weight loss from ordinary weight loss if any or all of the following symptoms are present:

  • Noticeable weight loss within a week or less
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Shiny skin
  • Feeling weak

Meanwhile, bloating due to cancer is often coupled with any of the following symptoms:

  • Noticeable weight gain within a week or less
  • Swollen feet, ankles, hands, or face.
  • Swollen abdomen
  • Shortness of breath
  • Skin that slightly dents after being pressed

Causes and Risks

  • Cancer-associated weight loss

Losing weight is common among cancer patients. The condition may arise due to the disease itself or as a side-effect of treatment, such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Doctors refer to cancer-associated weight loss as “cachexia,” a condition characterized by loss of appetite, increased metabolism, and loss of body fat and skeletal muscle mass. 

To date, more research is needed to fully understand the complexities of cachexia. However, available studies point to the release of cytokines as a significant factor in the development of this condition. Cytokines are small proteins released by the cells in response to a disease or infection. Their primary function is to mediate intercellular communication. Once released, cytokines signal other cells to orchestrate immune responses. These proteins may be released by the body to fight off the disease or even in response to treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

Different cytokines, especially tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-α), interleukin-1 (IL-1), interleukin-6 (IL-6), and interferon-gamma (IFN-γ), are said to correlate with the development of cancer cachexia by inducing loss of appetite and muscle wasting. Researchers previously found that injecting TNFα in mice induces cachexia and weight loss. Similar results have been found in succeeding studies.

Overall, cancer-related weight loss can severely affect the condition of the patient. It leads to reduced cancer treatment tolerance and survival rate. People with cancer who notice significant and unintentional weight loss must go to their doctors for diagnosis and an effective treatment plan. 

  • Cancer-associated bloating

Bloating refers to a sense of gassiness wherein the tummy, or the abdomen feels full or tight due to air or gas build-up. This condition is very common among patients diagnosed with ovarian, pancreatic, colon, and stomach cancers. 

Cancer-associated bloating may occur in different parts of the body. A buildup of fluid in the abdomen is called “ascites” and usually happens when cancer has spread and reached the peritoneum, the membrane lining the abdominal cavity, and the organs within it. The cancer cells may eventually irritate this lining, prompting it to release more fluid. In other cases, ascites may also occur when cancer cells block the lymphatic system, preventing fluid from draining from the abdomen. 

In one study, ascites were found present in about 49.4% of participants with stage 1 ovarian cancer and 62.5% of those with stage 2. The incidence significantly increases as cancer progresses, reaching 90.1% among participants with stage 3 ovarian cancer and 100% among patients with stage 4.

Common signs of ascites or abdominal bloating include:

  • Pain in the stomach
  • Constipation
  • Loss of appetite
  • Feeling sick
  • Fatigue 

Meanwhile, bloating in other parts of your body, such as the legs, hands, or face, may be due to the buildup of fluid within your body tissues. This condition is called edema. This is usually caused by certain medicines that can cause fluid retention in the body. Cancer patients who have undergone chemotherapy and radiation therapy usually experience edema when their lymph nodes or lymph vessels get damaged during the treatment. Swelling of the feet, legs, and face may also indicate underlying conditions, such as kidney, heart, and liver diseases. 

Common signs of edema are:

  • Puffiness
  • Shiny skin
  • Tight skin
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Swollen area that becomes slightly dented for a while after pressing it for 5 seconds

What to do?

If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer and started noticing significant changes in your body weight, it’s best to go and talk to your doctor right away. They will help diagnose the cause of your weight loss or bloating and provide you with the proper treatment method.

You may visit us here at New Hope Medical Center to avail a unique and holistic cancer treatment. Our programs focus on strengthening the body’s own natural defense systems using alternative medical care coupled with conventional therapies.


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