Unintended Weight Loss Linked to Higher Cancer Risk


Unintentional weight loss may allow physicians to detect cancer sooner.

Researchers may have identified a link between unintended weight loss and certain types of cancer, according to a study published by the British Journal of General Practice.

In the study, the authors found that unintentional weight loss, especially among older patients, is the second highest risk factor for colorectal, lung, pancreatic, and renal cancer. Identifying unintentional weight loss as a risk factor could allow health care providers to detect cancer earlier among patients.

"Streamlined services that allow GPs to investigate non-specific symptoms like weight loss are vitally important and urgently needed if we are to catch cancer earlier and save lives,” Brian Nicholson, MSc, lead author of the study, said in a press release. “Our research indicates that coordinated investigation across multiple body sites could help to speed up cancer diagnosis in patients with weight loss.”

This was the first study examining all available data on the association between weight loss and cancer. Twenty-five studies with data from more than 11.5 million patients were analyzed, according to the researchers.

The authors found that unintended weight loss was linked to 10 forms of cancer, with elderly patients being particularly at risk.

Unintentional weight loss brings patients over 60 above the 3% threshold for urgent investigation in NICE guidelines, according to the study. The risk factor is estimated to be as high as 6.7% in women over the age of 60, and 14.2% in men over the age of 60.

The authors noted the prominence of these findings, as they may encourage physicians to pay close attention to weight loss.

"We've always known that unplanned weight loss may represent cancer. This study pulls together all the published evidence and demonstrates beyond doubt that it is important in efforts to save lives from cancer,” Willie Hamilton, MD, coauthor of the study, said in the press release. “It is particularly timely with this week's announcement of 'one-stop' shops for cancer diagnosis. These units pull together all the necessary tests under one roof -- making the investigation of weight loss much more speedy and convenient for the patient."


Nicholson BD, Hamilton W, O’Sullivan J, et al. Weight loss as a predictor of cancer in primary care: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Br Gen J Pract. 2018. Doi: https://doi.org/10.3399/bjgp18X695801

Weight loss is an important predictor of cancer [news release]. University of Exeter’s website. http://www.exeter.ac.uk/news/research/title_651122_en.html. Accessed April 13, 2018.

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