Healthy weight loss is normally a matter of choice. Ideally, it follows a change in lifestyle such as a conscious effort to improve your diet or exercise routine. However, significant unexplained weight loss that comes without a change in lifestyle may be a sign of an underlying medial disorder such as leukaemia. In fact, according to our most recent patient survey, around 19% of leukaemia patients reported weight loss as a major symptom that lead to their diagnosis.
Read on to spot the difference between harmless and harmful weight loss and to stand a better chance of diagnosing leukaemia early.
Spotting the difference
Doctors generally agree that a loss of more than 5 percent of your weight in six months to a year is cause for concern and warrants a visit to your local GP. This especially applies if you’re an older adult (over age of 65).
Although unhealthy, it is normal to notice a temporary loss of weight after a stressful change to your life such as a change of job, redundancy, divorce or bereavement. Nevertheless, even if you think your recent loss of weight can be attributed to stress or something other than dieting or exercising, it is still important to make an appointment with your GP, as they may be able to spot something that you can’t.
It is important to visit your GP if;
- You can’t link your weight loss to diet or exercise – Generally, weight loss without an obvious change in diet or exercise is unhealthy and needs checking by a GP.
Even if you think your unintentional weight loss can be explained by stress or a pre-existing medical condition, it is important to gain a professional opinion from a GP.
“I lost a lot of weight. I felt fine, but my clothes never fitted me, they were too big. I’m type 1 diabetic as well, so I thought it was my diabetes.”
- You have lost a lot of weight very quickly – A loss of 5% of your weight in six months to a year is considered to be a concern by medical professionals.
Even if you have recently started exercising, it is important to be realistic with how quickly you are going to lose weight. For example, you might have suspicions that your current level of exercise doesn’t merit such extreme levels of weight loss.
“I started losing weight too, but had tried to lose a few kilograms, so didn’t relate this to anything untoward.”
- You have also noticed a decrease in appetite – Leukaemia can sometimes cause you to feel full after eating very little food (an enlarged spleen can press upon the stomach, giving your brain a false sensation of “fullness”).
“I also noticed a change in my weight, and I lost my appetite. I later learned that this was caused by my enlarged spleen which was pressing on my stomach.”
- You have experienced other symptoms of leukaemia – Make sure to push for a blood test if you are also experiencing other symptoms of leukaemia. Some other main symptoms include; fatigue, abdominal discomfort, night sweats, frequent infections, bruising and bleeding.
“I became bed bound with debilitating headaches, bruises, drenching night sweats, fatigue, no appetite, nausea, and weight loss.”
What causes weight loss in leukaemia?
Leukaemia can cause weight loss in a very direct manner, because rapidly dividing cancer cells use up large amounts of energy that your body would otherwise utilise or store as fat. Some cancer cells may even produce substances that effect the bodies metabolism, i.e. the speed and efficiency at which the body breaks down food.
Another, less direct cause of weight loss in leukaemia is loss of appetite. This can occur if a build-up of leukaemia cells in the blood can causes an enlarged spleen which can press upon the stomach, giving your brain a false sensation of fullness. This will cause you to eat less than you would normally.
When should I be concerned?
For many people, unintentional weight loss is welcomed as a good thing. However, this is definitely the wrong attitude to have, as more often than not there is an underlying condition responsible.
“I was also losing a bit of weight which, like most people out there, I thought was a great thing.”
For this reason, it is important to visit your doctor, even if you feel healthy or think you can explain your weight loss with stress or a pre-existing medical condition. Your GP will be able to run any precautionary tests to check for a cause and thereby rule out leukaemia or crucially, give an early diagnosis.
Make sure to push for a blood test if you are experiencing any of the other symptoms of leukaemia. Knowing what other symptoms are typical of leukaemia is crucial for helping you make the decision to visit your GP sooner for a blood test. Connect the dots between the symptoms of leukaemia and spot leukaemia sooner.
For information on the other symptoms of leukaemia, click here.