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Fish Oil and Cancer Cachexia

April 11, 2009 Written by JP    [Font too small?]

Cachexia is a weight loss condition that is often found in the latter stages of advanced cancers. It can present itself with or without an accompanying lack of appetite. The real problem is generally not a lack of hunger, but rather that the body cannot absorb nutrients properly. It’s also unlike starvation states because with cachexia the body doesn’t slow down its metabolism. Ultimately these changes can lead to physical wasting, severe weakness and contribute to the morbidity factor.

Fortunately, there is some good news to report in the natural treatment of this potentially deadly condition – a type of fish oil that may offer real hope in the battle against this insidious affliction.

Cachexia in Cancer Patients

Countering Cachexia

A new Irish study, published in the Annals of Surgery examined the role that a nutritional supplement could have in preserving weight and improving the quality of life in those undergoing surgery for esophageal cancer. One of the primary ingredients of this oral supplement is a fatty acid found in fish called EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid).

The reason why the researchers specifically chose esophageal cancer patients for the study is because the surgery involved typically results in a very difficult recovery. The post-surgical period is often marked by dramatic weight loss and negative changes in the perception of quality of life. Similarly the reason that EPA was chosen as a key player in the nutritional support is because prior research indicates that it may very well aid in the battle against cancer cachexia. I’ll report more about that later in this column.

The design of this study was set up in the following manner:

  • A total of 53 patients with esophageal cancer were given a nutritional drink 5 days prior to their surgery, immediately after surgery (by feeding tube, for 14 days in the hospital), and then again orally until the 21st day post surgery.
  • 28 of the patients were given a drink that contained 2.2 grams of EPA per day. The remaining 25 drank an identical beverage that did not contain any fish oil.

The results of this trial were extremely powerful. The group that received the fish oil infused supplement retained their lean body mass (muscle) and maintained their weight. The group that ingested the other nutritional supplement (without the EPA) lost a total of 4 lbs. of muscle weight in 21 days!

One of the lead researchers, Dr. Aoife Ryan, exclaimed that, “The results were extraordinary in the sense that no previous nutritional formulation had revealed such an outcome, with supplemented patients maintaining all aspects of their body composition in the three weeks following surgery. Patients given the standard supplement without omega 3 lost a significant amount of weight comprising 100% muscle mass.”

There were a few other interesting findings that go beyond just weight:

  • The patients who were receiving the fish oil were less likely to suffer from post-surgical fevers.
  • Blood tests indicate that supplementing with EPA lowered inflammatory markers in these same patients.

The inflammatory aspect may explain some of the benefits found here in part. The exact manner in which cachexia works isn’t clearly understood. But what is known is that inflammation somehow factors into this dangerous cycle.

In May 2009, a study will be published about a similar effect that was found in children undergoing cancer treatment (chemotherapy). In this experiment, 33 pediatric cancer patients received an EPA-based nutritional supplement. Another 19 patients received an almost identical supplement that excluded the fish oil ingredient. For the purpose of the study, the progress of this intervention was followed for a total of 6 months.

Two key benefits were found in those receiving the EPA enhanced supplement: 1) More of these patients retained their body weight; 2) A greater number of the fish oil patients experienced remission from their cancer.

Fish Oil Concentration

The two studies I just cited are further supported by a scientific review that was published in the British Journal of Nutrition in 2007. That systematic review was based on 17 scientific trials that helped to establish the following general consensus about the role that fish oil may have in managing cancer cachexia:

  • Fish oil may be of benefit for patients with advanced cancers with associated weight loss – especially in cases where tumors originate in the upper digestive tract and pancreas.
  • Fish oil may provide an improvement in appetite, post-surgical morbidity, quality of life and weight maintenance.
  • A dosage of over 1.5 grams of fish oil per day appears to be an appropriate dosing model.

Cancer is a devastating diagnosis. In the unfortunate event that it affects you or one of your loved ones, it’s important to avail yourself with the most accurate and current information about how to tip the odds in your favor. As the famous cancer patient advocate, Dr. Bernie Siegel, once said: “We are not statistics”. We are individuals with options and with the power to influence the course of any illness.

I hope that the information presented today will be a powerful tool for anyone who may need it in the future.

Be well,


Posted in Nutritional Supplements

5 Comments & Updates to “Fish Oil and Cancer Cachexia”

  1. Orna Izakson, ND, RH (AHG) Says:

    Very helpful, JP!

  2. JP Says:

    I’m very happy to know it! Thanks, Orna! 🙂

    Be well!


  3. David Emerson Says:

    Another helpful post JP- I want to further the fish oil maintains muscle mass idea and add whey protein as another supplement to maintain muscle mass during chemo. Whey protein also has anti cancer properties as does omega 3 fatty acids. I stir whey protein into my juice each am and I think it tasted pretty good. I take lemon flavored fish oil (eliminates burps) Studies are linked below-




    David Emerson

  4. JP Says:

    Thank you, David. I’ll review the data with great interest.

    Be well!


  5. Ed W. Says:

    I found your postinghere a few years ago when i had cancer. I have not only kept it in files but followed it all and read everything that was assoc. with this article. I was a pateint with this Cancer. Not only was that happining i was diagnosed 1 week before my 5 year clear.So i ended up with 2 stage 4 Cancers in 5 years.I PROUD to anounce that i am Free of it all. Both. When i got this article i read and went into action.My Dr,s wondered about it all being i was talking their language .I got Oil Pills and started taking them 5 a day . Some times up to 8.Mucsle Mass i lost alot of it and now have gained it back but alot of it went to fat.I can live with it.I THANK-YOU VERY MUCH for showing this article and what you do.May GOD Bless you and your house. When you have Cancer you dont want to be treated like a dummy and with this post i read and ASKED my Dr,s what was going on and when i told them it was like a light went on.Also thru this post i found out about Apple Cider Vinagar and honey Supplements Vitamins A,B.C.D.and a host of others.I also took what the Dr.s gave me.It all helps –Dont take sugar – Cancer likes sugar-you can use Aluminium Free Baking Soda and Maple Syrup.I beleive it all helps-I also Give Thanks to GOD who made me.I learned alot about myself also.YOU ALL CAN DO IT-Read and Feed is what i say now .Thanks again. Ed

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