Cancer and cancer treatments may cause weight loss. Significant weight loss with no known reason can be a symptom of cancer.

Cancer can change how the body uses energy and nutrients, which may cause it to use energy faster than it can replace it. Both cancer and cancer treatments may also cause a loss of appetite, which may reduce calorie intake.

This article looks at the link between cancer and weight loss, other signs and symptoms of cancer, other potential causes of unexplained weight loss, and when to consult a doctor.

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Weight loss can be a symptom of cancer or a side effect of cancer treatments.

Cancer can increase how much energy the body uses and can decrease appetite. Cancer treatments may also cause side effects, which lead to a loss of appetite.

Cancer can cause cachexia, which involves weight loss because the body requires an increase in calories. Cachexia refers to a loss of fat and muscle, which can lead to weakness and fatigue. The cancer or cancer treatment may cause cachexia.

People with cancer may lose their appetite and eat less, leading to weight loss. The effects of cancer on the body, or side effects of cancer treatments, can cause appetite loss.

Cancer may also affect a part of the body that makes it more difficult to eat or digest food, such as cancer in the mouth, neck, or gastrointestinal tract.

Certain immunotherapy or targeted therapy drugs for treating cancer may make people lose their appetite. Chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery may also cause side effects that can affect appetite. These side effects may include:

Mental health can also affect appetite, such as depression or anxiety, which may affect people with cancer.

If a tumor presses on part of the gastrointestinal system, it may cause difficulties eating or make people feel full more quickly. Some tumors can also release certain hormones that affect hunger signals.

Another reason people may lose weight with cancer is because the disease causes changes in metabolism. Additionally, cancer cells use up more energy than healthy cells.

Some tumors release cytokines, which are proteins that alter how the body uses nutrients. Cytokines also cause the body to use up calories faster than the body can replace them.

According to the American Cancer Society, general signs and symptoms of cancer may include the following:

  • unexplained weight loss or gain of 10 pounds or more
  • changes in eating patterns, such as loss of appetite, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, or difficulty swallowing
  • swelling or lumps in the body
  • extreme tiredness or fatigue that does not improve with rest
  • a lump or thickening in the breast or anywhere else in the body
  • pain, which worsens or does not go away
  • skin changes, such as a new mole, a change in a mole, or a lump that bleeds or becomes scaly
  • a yellowing or discoloration of the skin and whites of the eyes
  • lasting hoarse voice or cough
  • atypical bleeding or bruising with no known cause
  • bladder changes, such as changes in frequency, painful urination, or blood in the urine
  • bowel habit changes, such as a change in the appearance of stools, persistent diarrhea, or constipation
  • fever or night sweats
  • vision or hearing problems
  • headaches
  • changes in the mouth, such as pain, bleeding, sores, or numbness

Many of these symptoms can occur due to other causes. If people have any concerning or continuing symptoms, it is best to contact a doctor to find out the underlying cause.

Read more about cancer.

Other causes of unexplained weight loss may include the following:

Cancer resources

To discover more evidence-based information and resources for cancer, visit our dedicated hub.

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People with significant unexplained weight loss can consult a doctor to determine the underlying cause.

If people have unexplained weight loss of 10 pounds or more or unintentionally lose more than 5% of their body weight over 6–12 months, it is best to speak with a doctor.

Additionally, those with unexplained weight loss and other symptoms need to consult a doctor. There are many conditions other than cancer that can cause weight loss, and it is important to determine the underlying cause.

Cancer can cause weight loss due to the cancer or side effects of treating the disease.

Cancer can alter how the body uses energy and nutrients. Side effects of the disease or its treatments may also cause appetite loss, which may lead to weight loss.

If people have unexplained weight loss, particularly if any other symptoms are present, they can contact a doctor to determine the underlying cause.