On Cachexia – Not a Bowlful of Jelly

Think thin . . . and far too often, that's what we do.

Think thin . . . and far too often, that’s what we do.

When cachexic was first spoken to describe a patient during a hospice team meeting, I had no clue what it meant. Nonetheless, as someone that long-ago and far-away studied Latin and Greek, I figured the odd word had roots in those languages. Indeed, it does. But I probably would have tossed in one or more “Ks” if I’d tried to spell it. And if a nurse had demanded I repeat it back to her, I would’ve also failed the pronunciation test.

It’s a clunky, marbles-in-the-mouth kind of word for a cruel condition. Here’s what Amber Dance wrote in a 2012 article for the Los Angeles Times:

Cachexia (pronounced kuh-KEK-see-uh) is commonly defined as the unintentional loss of 5% or more of a person’s weight within a six-month period. Crucially, it’s muscle that slides off one’s frame, often with fat as well. It’s associated with advanced cancers as well as HIV, heart failure and kidney disease. In layman’s terms, it means “the patient looks awful, they look weak, they’ve lost much of their body mass . . .”

Now I’ll bet it’s easier for you to pronounce the word. Maybe you could even pass a spelling bee. But all things considered, I’d rather never hear the word in a spelling bee or hospice meeting. With those Greek roots wrapped around some of the worst of what can happen to you or a loved one, it won’t surprise anyone to learn it’s similar to pyrexia (an abnormal elevation of body temperature) and dyslexia (a condition of the brain that makes it hard for a person to read, write and spell). Cachexia may not have a “K,” but dread any Greek word gift that includes an “X.”

How terrible to waste away. Some patients do. And, ironically, how stressful to live in a culture enamored with being thin or becoming thinner.

  • If only I could only lose ten more pounds!
  • Gotta count those calories!
  • I wish I could look like _____________! (There’s always an ultra-thin star we “admire.”)

I struggle with how I view my body. Do you? I exercise. I’m reasonably healthy. But I’ve always been described as chunky, slightly chubby and even compared to Santa Claus. A hospice colleague, soon after we met, wondered if I ever played Santa at Christmas. He may have asked that while admiring my white beard, but my jolly cheeks burned as I recalled Clement Clark Moore’s line:  “He had a broad face and a little round belly, that shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly…”

As we die, we will waste away. As we grieve a beloved’s death, we will waste away. However, in the time of dying, and in the aftermath of death, while our bodies may figuratively or literally waste away, I hope you gain the “weight” of sharing with others how much you love them, telling folks how important they are and taking time to add joy to each moment.

Sadly, some weight loss—like cachexia—we can’t control. But with hopeful, heartfelt efforts, there’s some weight we can choose to gain . . .

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

Image from here.

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