Written By: Karen Selby, RN,
Last modified: May 13, 2021

Muscle weakness can make it hard for patients to lift things or walk. Cancer-related muscle weakness is a common mesothelioma symptom. It becomes worse as cancer spreads throughout the body.

Most mesothelioma patients already experience some muscle loss because of aging or conditions such as diabetes. This is why patients often do not notice cancer-related muscle weakness at first.

Muscle Weakness Facts

  • Affects patients most when cancer spreads
  • Result of chemical imbalances caused by cancer
  • Lack of protein in diet can worsen muscle weakness
  • Regular exercise is essential to minimizing muscle loss

Muscle weakness typically becomes severe when mesothelioma reaches stage 4. But patients are at risk of losing muscle mass and function in every stage of the disease.

Muscle weakness is associated with worse quality of life and lower survival rates. The weaker a patient becomes, the faster they lose remaining strength. This is why patients with mesothelioma should ask their doctors about strategies to minimize muscle weakness as soon as possible.

Muscle Weakness Caused by Lack of Oxygen and Nutrients

Muscle weakness often goes hand-in-hand with breathing difficulty and fatigue, two other common mesothelioma symptoms. Breathing difficulty makes it harder for patients to get the oxygen they need to use their muscles.

Not getting enough to eat can also cause fatigue and muscle weakness.

Chemotherapy often causes side effects such as mouth sores and nausea that make it difficult to eat. Getting plenty of protein is particularly important for minimizing muscle weakness. When the body does not get enough protein from food, it uses up the protein in muscles.

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Tumors consume calories and protein as they grow, leaving fewer nutrients available for muscles. In addition, low red blood cell counts (anemia) caused by cancer treatment can make it harder for the blood to carry nutrients to muscles throughout the body.

Nutritional support is essential to help patients fight cancer and recover from cancer therapies.

Reduced Muscle Function Caused by Inflammation and Cancer Spread

Eating a balanced diet is important, but not enough to prevent cancer-related muscle weakness. Cancer can cause chemical imbalances in the body that interfere with muscle function.

As cancer spreads into different tissues, it can affect muscles in a variety of other ways as well.

Mesothelioma tumors can cause chronic inflammation, which is when the body’s immune system is constantly on high alert. Cancer treatments can also cause inflammation. This leads to a high level of pro-inflammatory cytokines in the body. These chemicals reduce muscle function and growth.

If mesothelioma spreads to organs such as the adrenal glands, it may cause a hormone imbalance in the body. If cancer spreads into bones, the bones will release calcium and other chemicals that are harmful to muscles at high levels.

When mesothelioma disrupts the body’s chemistry, muscles will weaken even if the patient has enough protein in their diet.

Researchers are investigating special dietary supplements and experimental drugs that promote muscle metabolism. Doctors are also studying whether medications that reduce inflammation can help. This class of medicines includes nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin.

However, late-stage mesothelioma may also impair muscles directly by spreading into muscle tissue. If cancer spreads into the spine and presses against nerves, it may make it harder for signals from the brain to reach muscles lower in the body.

In addition, muscle weakness can be a side effect of certain supportive medications such as glucocorticoids.

Muscle Loss Caused by Inactivity

With current medical science, it is impossible to completely prevent muscle weakness caused by mesothelioma. However, patients can take action to minimize how much muscle mass and function they lose.

Regular exercise is just as important as medical care and nutritional support.

Exercise for mesothelioma patients should suit their circumstances. Patients should consult their doctors before seeking out a trainer because many trainers don’t know how to work with patients with malignancies. For other patients, taking a short walk every day may be the most realistic exercise plan.

Staying active is the key to minimizing muscle weakness and fatigue. If someone does not use their muscles on a regular basis, their body will not make it a priority to produce energy or keep their muscles healthy.

Patients must try not to let muscle weakness lead to inactivity, because this will lead to even weaker muscles.

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