Is Weight Loss a Symptom of Ovarian Cancer or Other Cancers?

Cancer as a Common Cause of Unexplained Weight Loss

Doctor weighing female patient on scale. Credit: Jose Luis Pelaez Inc.

When is weight loss - that is unintentional and unexplained weight loss - a sign of ovarian cancer?

What is Unexplained Weight Loss?

The term unexplained weight loss is used to define weight loss that is unintentional.  By definition this refers to a weight loss of 5% or your body weight over a period of 6 to 12 months.  For example, if a woman who ordinarily weighs 150 pounds loses 7 pounds or more in less than a year without trying - without changing her diet or exercise program - this would be referred to as unexplained weight loss.

Unintentional weight loss certainly warrant a trip to the doctor. There are many causes of unexplained weight loss.  It's still unlikely that you are living with an undiagnosed cancer, but a through work-up would be recommended.

Again, the unintentional part of this equation has to be stressed.  This weight loss is often described as happening fairly suddenly, and without any dieting or effort.Many women with ovarian cancer report weight loss as a symptom, and it may be the first symptom of the disease. It usually happens suddenly without dieting or effort.

Weight Loss as a Symptom of Cancer

Researchers have wondered how often the symptom of unexplained weight loss is due to cancer.  One study carefully evaluated this question.  It was found that 38% of people without any symptoms, and who went to their doctor because of unintentional weight loss, had an underlying cancer.

Certainly having some symptoms may increase these chances.

  For example, if someone also has symptoms of ovarian cancer such as abdominal bloating, changes in bowel habits, and pain during intercourse, the chance that ovarian cancer is the underlying cause for the weight loss is considerably higher.

Of the 38%, cancers of the abdominal and pelvic regions - such as ovarian cancer - were responsible for 50% of these cancers.

Weight Loss in People with Cancer

Weight loss can be the first symptom of ovarian cancer.  It was found on a study looking at all types of cancer, that 40% of people had lost weight at the time of their initial diagnosis.  By the time a cancer progresses to the advanced stages, that number is much higher yet - around 80%.

Types of Cancer Which Cause Unintentional Weight Loss

Nearly any cancer can cause unexplained weight loss, but the more common types include ovarian cancer, cancer of the pancreas, esophageal cancer, and lung cancer.

Other Symptoms that Suggest Weight Loss is Due to Cancer?

Unintentional weight loss is more likely to be related to cancer if you have any of the common symptoms of cancer such as a chronic cough, shortness of breath, a lump, changes in your stools, or a sore which doesn't heal.

Lab Abnormalities When Weight Loss is Due to Cancer

Researchers have looked carefully at how tests done in the lab may give a clue to an underlying cancer.  Several lab tests were studied in a few different clinical trials.

  It's been found that looking at labs to determine if weight loss is due to cancer has some inconsistencies.  Yet overall it's been found that having at least one abnormal level raises the risk that weight loss is due to cancer.  Labs that were evaluated in this setting included alkaline phosphotase (ALK,) lactate dehydrogenase (LDH,) blood counts (looking in particular for a high white blood cell count,) sed rate, c-reactive protein.

What Causes Weight Loss in People With Cancer?

There are many mechanisms by which people may lose weight with cancer.  Some of these include:

  • A general lack of appetite with cancer
  • Mouth sores or taste changes from chemotherapy
  • Metabolic activity requiring increased nutrients
  • Fatigue, which makes the thought of preparing a meal overwhelming
  • Depression and grief reactions - Some people stop eating when they are depressed, and cancer results in an increased risk of depression.

Bottom Line

If you've experienced unintentional weight loss, talk to your doctor.  There is a chance it could be cancer and specifically ovarian cancer.  Yet it could also be due to other serious medical conditions.

Sources:

American Cancer Society. Signs and Symptoms of Cancer. Updated 08/11/14. http://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancerbasics/signs-and-symptoms-of-cancer

American Society of Clinical Oncology. Cancer.Net Weight Loss. 11/2014. http://www.cancer.net/navigating-cancer-care/side-effects/weight-loss

Baicus, C., Rimbas, M., Baicus, A. et al. Cancer and involuntary weight loss: failure to validate a prediction score. PLos One. 2014. 9(4):e95286.

Hernandez, J., Riancho, J., Matorras, P., and J. Gonzalez-Macias. Clinical evaluation for cancer in patients with involuntary weight loss without specific symptoms. American Journal of Medicine. 2003. 114(8):631-7.

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