Original Research

Longitudinal Dynamic in Weight Loss Impacts Clinical Outcomes for Veterans Undergoing Curative Surgery for Colorectal Cancer

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Background: Definitions of malnutrition imperfectly reflect nutritional status or predict perioperative consequences. We sought to identify predictive nutritional trends by examining the effect of preoperative weight on postoperative outcomes in patients with colorectal cancer (CRC).

Methods: This retrospective review examined 148 patients with CRC treated with curative-intent surgery at the Veterans Affairs Ann Arbor Healthcare System in Michigan from January 1, 2015 to December 31, 2019. We evaluated weight dynamics of patients, starting 1 year before cancer diagnosis until 1 year after surgery. We evaluated the association of these weight dynamics with surgical outcomes. Primary outcomes observed were hospital readmission and length of stay (LOS), chemotherapy completion, and delayed recovery defined as abnormal clinical developments.

Results: There were 115 patients in the colon cancer (CC) cohort and 33 in the rectal cancer (RC) cohort. Low preoperative albumin (< 3.5 g/dL) was present in 25 patients with CC (22%) and 11 patients with RC (33%). Six-month preoperative weight loss of at least 3% occurred in 32 patients with CC (36%). Delayed recovery was observed in 35 patients with CC (30%) and 21 patients with RC (64%). Nutrition consultation rates for the CC and RC groups were 15% and 36%, respectively, before the operation; 95% and 100%, respectively, for postoperative inpatients; and 12% and 73%, respectively, for postoperative outpatients. Six-month preoperative weight loss of ≥ 3% was significantly associated with delayed recovery (P < .001) and 60-day readmissions (P = .015) but not increased LOS or chemotherapy noncompletion.

Conclusions: A ≥ 3% weight loss 6 months preceding curative surgery for CRC was associated with adverse outcomes. An intensive nutrition prehabilitation program initiated at the time of cancer diagnosis is needed and may reduce associated complications.



In patients with gastrointestinal (GI) malignancies, malnutrition is common. In addition, it has various negative implications, including high risk for surgical complications, prolonged hospitalization, decreased quality of life (QOL), increased mortality, and poor tolerance for treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy.1

A 2014 French study of 1903 patients hospitalized for cancer reported a 39% overall prevalence of malnutrition; 39% in patients with cancers of the colon/rectum, 60% for pancreatic cancer, and 67% for cancers of the esophagus/stomach.2 Malnutrition was defined as body mass index (BMI) < 18.5 for individuals aged < 75 years or BMI < 21 for individuals aged ≥ 75 years, and/or weight loss > 10% since disease onset. Malnutrition also was strongly associated with worsened performance status.

The etiology of malnutrition in GI cancers is often multifactorial. It includes systemic tumor effects, such as inflammatory mediators contributing to hypermetabolism and cachexia, local tumor-associated mechanical obstruction, GI toxicities caused by antineoplastic therapy or other medications, and psychological factors that contribute to anorexia.3 Patient-related risk factors such as older age, other chronic diseases, and history of other GI surgeries also play a role.1

Other studies have demonstrated that malnutrition in patients with GI malignancies undergoing surgical resection is associated with high rates of severe postoperative complications, increased length of stay (LOS) and time on a ventilator for patients treated in the intensive care unit, and poor QOL in the postoperative survival period.4-6 Several randomized controlled trials conducted in patients with GI cancers have shown that enteral and parenteral nutrition supplementations in the perioperative period improve various outcomes, such as reduction of postoperative complication rates, fewer readmissions, improved chemotherapy tolerance, and improved QOL.7-10 Thus, in the management of patients with GI malignancies, it is highly important to implement early nutritional screening and establish a diagnosis of malnutrition to intervene and reduce postoperative morbidity and mortality.1

However, tools and predictors of malnutrition are often imperfect. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition (AND/ASPEN) weight-based criteria define malnutrition and nutritionally-at-risk as BMI < 18.5, involuntary loss of at least 10% of body weight within 6 months or 5% within 1 month, or loss of 10 lb within 6 months.11 While the ASPEN criteria are often used to define malnourishment, they may not fully capture the population at risk, and there does not exist a gold-standard tool for nutritional screening. A 2002 study that performed a critical appraisal of 44 nutritional screening tools found that no single tool was fully sufficient for application, development, evaluation, and consistent screening.12 As such, consistently screening for malnutrition to target interventions in the perioperative period for GI surgical oncology has been challenging.13 More recent tools such as the perioperative nutrition screen (PONS) have been validated as rapid, effective screening tools to predict postoperative outcomes.14 Additionally, implementation of perioperative nutritional protocols, such as enhanced recovery after surgery (ERAS) in colon cancer (CC) surgery, also has shown improved perioperative care and outcomes.15

Preoperative nutritional interventions have been implemented in practice and have focused mostly on the immediate perioperative period. This has been shown to improve surgical outcomes. The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) provides comprehensive care to patients in a single-payer system, allowing for capture of perioperative data and the opportunity for focused preoperative interventions to improve outcomes.


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