People with advanced cancer could be saved from pain, fatigue and appetite loss, following research that sheds light on how the symptoms develop.
The findings suggest that controlling the immune system of people with terminal cancer may help improve their quality of life.
Researchers at the University of Edinburgh studied cancer progression in more than 2500 patients across Europe.
The team used blood tests to assess inflammation levels in patients with many different kinds of the disease, including lung, breast, and colon cancer.
The results show that a person’s level of inflammation has a direct effect on the way they feel, causing pain, fatigue, loss of appetite and nausea.
Inflammation is part of the body’s natural defence against infection.
Researchers say that cancers can often hijack this response to spread around the body. This can damage healthy tissues and cause pain and other symptoms.
This is the first large study to show that symptoms may develop as a result of the body’s immune response to cancer, and not simply as a consequence of tumour growth.
Scientists say that by targeting inflammation with existing immunotherapy drugs, it may be possible to prevent these symptoms from developing and improve patients’ quality of life.
The results are published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.
Lead researcher Dr Barry Laird, of the Edinburgh Cancer Research Centre at the University of Edinburgh, said: “This study challenges the assumption that certain symptoms are an inevitable consequence of advanced cancer, and there is nothing doctors can do to make patients feel better.”
If we can understand what causes symptoms such as pain, fatigue and nausea, we can begin to tackle them. We already have drugs that target and reduce inflammation, so using these drugs specifically to treat symptoms, may make a real difference to people living with cancer. Clinical trials which assess this are underway.
The study was conducted in partnership with the European Palliative Care Research Centre, The University of Glasgow and funded by the Norwegian Research Council and the EU Framework 6 Programme.