The Relationship Between Excess Weight and Cancer

It’s often a challenge to maintain healthy body weight, given our busy lives. But the advantages outweigh the effort involved. Maintaining healthy body weight can help you feel more confident and improve your self-image. It can help reduce your risk of health problems, such as diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure. Additionally, many might not realize that maintaining a healthy weight can decrease the risk of developing some cancers.  


A healthy weight is also important for people who are currently fighting cancer. Carrying around extra weight can disrupt a patient’s cancer treatment and increase the risk of recurrence. Fortunately, making a few lifestyle adjustments, such as upping physical activity and eating healthier, can help a person shed the extra pounds and improve strength, energy and overall well-being – whether that person is going through cancer treatment or not. 


Understanding Body Mass Index


All of us have different body shapes and types, which is what makes each of us unique. Obesity is medically defined as having a disproportionate amount of body fat. If someone falls into this category, it’s important to be aware of the fact, so he or she can work toward losing the extra weight and improving health.


The most common way to measure whether it’s time to pay more attention to weight is by calculating body mass index (BMI). A BMI over 30 increases the risk of developing cancers of the uterus, ovary, breast, esophagus, pancreas, colon, rectum, gallbladder and kidney.


Obesity-Related Cancer Risks


According to Dr. Robert Wascher, a surgical oncologist at Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) at Western Regional Medical Center in Goodyear, AZ, at least 10 percent of all new cancer cases are thought to be linked to obesity.


Here are some factors that researchers believe could account for obesity-related cancer risks:

• Fat cells can absorb cancer-causing toxins, storing them in the body for a long period of time.

• Obesity-related increases in sex hormone levels and other types of growth hormones have been proposed as possible causes of cancer.

• Breast cancer may be more likely to occur, and recur, in people who are obese – especially in women who have already gone through menopause – because excess estrogen produced by fat cells could be stimulating the growth of breast cancer cells.

• Excess weight can lead to high levels of insulin or insulin-like growth factors in the blood. Both of these can lead to the development of some tumors.

• Fat cells may cause tumors to grow faster, as one study revealed about the spread of ovarian cancer.

• Excess weight can increase the presence of inflammatory substances, which has been linked to liver cancer.

While research on the exact correlation is ongoing, Dr. Wascher and other cancer experts agree that maintaining a healthy weight is important for lowering the risk of some cancers and reducing the risk of recurrence.


Excess weight can also interfere with cancer treatment if a person has already been diagnosed. For example, it can be more challenging to prescribe the optimal dose of chemotherapy or radiation therapy, and increase complications of surgery. Losing the extra weight can help ensure that a person receives the appropriate treatment plan for his/her needs and avoid any treatment interruptions.


Cancer Treatments and Weight Gain


Some cancer treatments can actually cause people to gain weight. This is most common with cancers of the breast, prostate and ovary, and especially for people taking hormone therapies, steroids and certain chemotherapies.


Weight gain can sometimes occur when anticancer drugs cause the body to retain extra fluid, a condition known as edema. Hormone therapy can cause the metabolism to slow, and steroid medication can increase fatty tissue. In cases of weight gain, eating right and incorporating physical activity are important to ensure that the person maintain a healthy weight during treatment. If you’re working with someone with cancer, suggest that he/she consult the doctor or dietitian for help with finding a healthy balance.


Making Lifestyle Changes


It may be difficult to think about weight loss while undergoing treatment for cancer or focusing on recovery. However, with help from a doctor and a dietitian, a patient can find ways to maintain a healthy weight and, at the same time, improve mood, energy and overall well-being.


“Even if you are obese at the time of your cancer diagnosis, it’s never too late to make a change,” says Heather Gabbert, manager of nutrition at CTCA at Southeastern Regional Medical Center in Newnan, GA. Gabbert notes that behavior modification, nutritional intake and physical activity are the keys to losing weight.*


* Please suggest to a cancer patient you’re working with that he/she consult his/her primary doctor and oncologist before starting any new weight-loss program.


Simple Tips to Maintaining a Healthy Weight


Making lifestyle changes, modifying eating habits and incorporating physical activity into daily life take commitment, but the rewards are worth the effort for cancer survivors – and everyone else!


Many people try their best to eat right and exercise as often as possible, but sometimes it’s hard to find the time or even the motivation. Here are some tips you can suggest to a cancer patient you may be working with to help reach a healthy body weight, which can be beneficial for both mind and body:  


1. Make Exercise Fun – Exercise doesn’t have to be tedious and boring. Find activities you enjoy, and you’re more likely to want to do them. Take long walks, go shopping at the mall or take a dancing lesson. Even some video games can help you get moving without even leaving your house, such as Wii Fit, Dance Dance Revolution or EA Sports Active.


2. Skip the Elevator – Whenever possible, skip the elevator/escalator and take the stairs. If your office is on the third floor, forgo the elevator and take the stairs daily for a short and quick workout.  


3. Drink More Water – Drinking water is crucial for any weight-loss program, and staying hydrated is important for your overall health. Substitute a glass of water for a can of regular soda a day, and you’lll eliminate nearly 850 calories a week.


4. Load up on Antioxidants – Foods and drinks with antioxidants can help boost your metabolism and burn fat. Instead of potato chips or fries, reach for yummy snacks that contain antioxidants, such as beans, berries, pecans and even dark chocolate. Ask a dietitian for advice about incorporating other healthy foods into your diet.


5. Find a Support System – Whether you’re embarking on your weight-loss journey with a friend, family member or organized support group, having others to assist you along the way can be a huge motivational boost.


6. Try a Group Sport – Unlike solo sports – running, swimming and biking – a group activity like softball, basketball or kickball can help motivate you and also be a great social outlet. Consult with a physical therapist to determine which sport has the right level of activity for your needs.


7. Indulge, But Not Too Much – Eliminating all the things you love to eat is going to make the process of losing weight seem like a chore. Be sure to indulge in a small treat from time to time.


8. Keep Laughing – Laughter really is the best medicine for many ailments. A study from Vanderbilt University found that laughing increases the heart rate 10 to 20 percent, and 10 to 15 minutes of laughter could help you burn an extra 10 to 40 calories a day. Laughter can have numerous other health benefits, including relieving physical and emotional stresses or discomfort.


9. Create Achievable Goals – Speak with your doctor or a dietitian to create reasonable goals. Weight loss can take a little time, and celebrating milestones along the way can help boost your mood and motivate you to continue on toward the ultimate goal.


10. Think Positively – Losing weight can take hard work, but it is certainly a goal anyone can achieve. There may be some setbacks along the way, but try not to dwell on them. Instead, focus on starting anew the next day. Staying positive throughout the process can make it easier to find success during your weight loss efforts.  


*Before starting a new exercise routine, please suggest to a cancer patient you’re working with that he/she consult his/her doctor first to make sure the participation level is correct for the patient.