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Weight Gain Linked to Cancer Survival in Men and Women

Cancer cachexia is a syndrome of weight loss that frequently occurs during cancer treatment. Consequences can include skeletal muscle loss, fatigue, functional impairment, worse quality of life, and worse survival. On the other hand, weight gain during cancer treatment has been tied to better survival.

A new study shows that, among patients with non–small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), weight gain over the course of treatment with standard of care chemotherapy was associated with improved survival in both men and women. Few studies have examined the relationship between weight gain and outcomes by sex.

“The finding that weight gain occurred in subsets of males and females is a new observation. The fact that weight gain occurs in cancer patients during anticancer treatment could confound results of clinical [trials] evaluating novel anticachexia treatments. Simultaneously studying longitudinal body weights and serum and cellular biomarkers in cancer patients might provide insights into mechanisms involved in cachexia. Increased understanding of mechanisms driving cachexia could lead to new therapeutic strategies,” said study coauthor Philip Bonomi, MD, who is an oncologist at Rush Medical College, Chicago.

“This data, although it appears to be very basic, is critically important, especially as we consider our novel interventions in the treatment of cancer cachexia,” said Eric Roeland, MD, during his presentation of the study at the annual meeting of European Society for Medical Oncology. Roeland is a medical oncologist at Oregon Health & Science University, Portland.

Roeland is also the lead author of cancer cachexia guidelines published by the American Society of Clinical Oncology in 2020. The guidelines suggest that dietary counseling can be offered to patients, but warns against routine use of enteral feeding tubes and parenteral nutrition. Although no specific drug can be recommended for cancer cachexia, progesterone analogs and corticosteroids used over the short term (weeks) can be used on a trial base to improve appetite and weight gain. While not approved in the United States, anamorelin was approved in 2020 in Japan for cancer cachexia in NSCLC, gastric cancer, pancreatic cancer, and colorectal cancer.

The new study should raise awareness of the importance of adverse effects of cancer treatments, said Karin Jordan, MD, University Hospital Heidelberg (Germany). She served as a discussant following the presentation. “As a medical oncologist, we focus a bit too much on the benefits of antineoplastic therapy, both on cure and on the survival benefit. But what is also very, very important to do is a balanced oncology treatment to focus on the risks of oncology therapies,” she said.

The study is limited by its retrospective nature and potential for bias. “The hypothesis that weight gain leads to improved survival is not really proven as it likewise may be the other way around,” Jordan said.

However, in oncology research, a phenomenon called the “obesity paradox” is increasingly catching the interest of investigators. Observational studies have shown that overweight patients with certain cancers (specifically, colorectal, endometrial and lung cancer). actually have improved overall survival as compared with normal-weight patients.

Details From the New Study

The researchers pooled data 1,030 patients who participated in three phase 3 clinical trials conducted between 2005 and 2011. The patients all received platinum-based chemotherapy as part of control arms. 304 were female and 726 were male. The median age was 62. 16.7% were Asian, the mean body mass index was 24.6 kg/m2, 88.5% had stage 4 disease, 36.9% had adenocarcinoma, and 86.3% were current or former smokers.

Males and females had similar magnitudes and rate of weight gain over the course of treatment. Any weight gain was associated with improved overall survival in both males (12.7 vs. 8.0 months; hazard ratio, 0.60; P < .001) and females (16.2 vs. 10.1 months; HR, 0.65; P = .0028). Patients who had a weight gain of 2.5% of body weight or more saw an improvement in overall survival in both males (14.0 vs. 8.2 months; HR, 0.57; P < .001) and females (16.7 vs. 11.3 months; HR, 0.61; P = .0041).

Patients with a weight gain of 5% or more was associated with improved survival in males (13.6 vs. 8.9 months; HR, 0.62; P = .0001), but there was no statistically significant association in females (16.7 vs. 12.6 months; HR, 0.69; P = .1107).

Regardless of weight-gain status, males had lower survival rates than females. All of the associations were independent of smoking status.

The study was funded by Pfizer. Bonomi has received honoraria from Pfizer and Helsinn for participation in scientific advisory boards. Jordan has consulted for Amgen, Hexal, Riemser, Helsinn, Voluntis, Pfizer, and BD Solution. She has received research funding from Deutsche Krebshilfe. She has received honoraria from MSD, Merck, Amgen, Hexal, Riemser, Helsinn, Voluntis, Pfizer, Pomme-med, PharmaMar, arttemoi, OnkoUpdate, Stemline, and Roche.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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