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Weight Loss and Cancer

Is Weight Loss a Symptom of Cancer?

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Updated May 31, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Many people would consider a weight loss without dieting or exercise a pleasant surprise, but it actually can be a health concern that should be reported to your doctor. Unexplained weight loss can be a symptom of many conditions - cancer included.

Weight Loss and Cancer

Unintentional weight loss can be a symptom of cancer, though vague and non-specific. Losing weight isn't a characteristic of a single type of cancer. The fact is that most people with cancer do lose some weight for a variety of reasons. Weight loss can be caused by the cancer itself, loss of appetite, or even emotional stress over the daily challenges of having cancer.

When To See Your Doctor About Weight Loss

Generally, you should see your doctor if you have lost 5 percent of your body weight within six months or less and have done so without modifying your diet or exercising. Your doctor may ask you several questions to help identify why you are losing weight. Your doctor will want to know the basics like when you first started to lose weight and how much you have lost. Other possible questions your doctor may ask include:
  • Do you have any dental problems? (People who have dental problems often eat less or less often without realizing to avoid tooth/gum pain.)
  • Are you vomiting? Do you have diarrhea?
  • What is your stress level? Have you had any major life changes occur recently?
  • Do you eat the same as normal or are you eating less?
  • Are you a smoker or consume alcohol?
  • Do you have any other symptoms?
It is also important to first make your doctor aware of any diseases or conditions and medications (both prescribed, over-the-counter, or herbal supplements) that you take. This is most likely one of the first questions your doctor may ask during your visit.

Based on your responses, your doctor may decide to do a few routine blood tests, such as a complete blood count (CBC) or chem 7 panel to see what they reveal.

Remember, Weight Loss Doesn't Mean You Have Cancer

Keep in mind that weight loss is a very general, vague symptom of cancer. Losing weight without trying is not a red flag for cancer, but more an indication to your doctor to run certain medical tests. You may also get a better understanding of what your symptoms, like weight loss, may mean by using the About.com Symptom Checker, an interactive health education tool.
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