Unexplained weight loss can be one of the first signs of cancer, new study finds. Here's why.

Unexplained weight loss can be one of the first signs of cancer, new study finds. Here's why.
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Losing weight without trying can be an early sign of cancer, according to a new study. The research raises questions about significant weight loss without changes to diet, exercise, or lifestyle, as well as when people should seek medical care. Experts stress that unexplained weight loss doesn't always signal that something is off with your health — but it can be an indicator. Here's what you need to know about the latest findings, as well as when to speak to your doctor about your weight loss.

Understanding the Study's Insights

The study, published in JAMA, discovered a significant association between recent weight loss and a higher rate of cancer diagnosis within the next 12 months, compared to those without recent weight loss.

Key Findings from the Research

Researchers, analyzing data from the Nurses’ Health Study involving nearly 160,000 individuals, found that those who lost more than 10% of their body weight faced a higher cancer diagnosis rate within a year. The risk was notable, with 1,362 per 100,000 person-years for those with significant weight loss compared to 860 per 100,000 person-years for those without recent weight loss.

Identifying High-Risk Cancer Types

Individuals with cancer of the upper gastrointestinal tract, such as the esophagus, stomach, liver, biliary tracts, or pancreas, were most likely to experience significant weight loss before diagnosis. However, breast and brain cancer and melanoma showed no significant weight loss beforehand.

Insights from Medical Experts

Medical experts note that these findings align with their clinical observations. Dr. Wael Harb, a hematologist and medical oncologist, emphasizes the long-known association between cancer and unexplained weight loss, cautioning that cancer should be considered a potential cause for such cases.

Exploring Causes of Weight Loss in Cancer Patients

Cancer patients may experience various symptoms, including pain, weakness, fatigue, and reduced appetite. Jaylin Kellogg, a nutrition support dietitian, explains that factors like nausea, difficulty chewing or swallowing, and changes in nutrient absorption contribute to unintentional weight loss. Some cancers even increase resting calorie burn, adding to weight loss.

Understanding the Significance of the Study

The study underscores the importance of consulting a doctor if you undergo unexplained weight loss. Dr. Pamela Hodul, a gastrointestinal surgeon, recommends seeking medical attention for unintentional weight loss exceeding 5% of your body weight within six to 12 months. However, she highlights that weight loss doesn't automatically indicate cancer and could result from various metabolic causes.

Considerations for Weight Loss Medication

Dr. Harb advises a thorough physical examination before starting weight loss medication to ensure overall health. Dr. Hodul warns of monitoring sharp drops in weight, differentiating between the predictable course of safe weight loss and the potentially concerning trajectory of cancer-related weight loss.

Broader Health Implications

Emphasizing that significant unexplained weight loss can be attributed to various health conditions, Dr. Harb encourages individuals not to jump to conclusions. A comprehensive physical examination is crucial to identify other symptoms or signs contributing to the weight loss.

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