One of the most troubling consequences of obesity is its link with an increased risk of cancer. Recent studies have shown an association between obesity and cancer, specifically these 13 types of cancer:
- Breast (post-menopausal women)
- Colon and rectum
- Esophageal (adenocarcinoma)
- Meningioma (cancer of tissues that covers the brain and spinal cord)
- Multiple Myeloma (cancer of the blood cells)
- Upper stomach
Can Obesity Cause Cancer?
Biological Factors: It was once thought that adipose tissue (“fat cells”) was inactive in the body, but we now know adipose tissue is very active. Fat cells produce harmful chemicals that cause inflammation in our body; over time, this can lead to damage to healthy cells. Fat cells also produce high hormone levels that can trigger cancer genes in people with an increased risk for certain types of cancer. For example, in post-menopausal women, most estrogen is made outside of the ovaries. Studies show that as BMI increases, estrogen levels also increase. This increased level of estrogen has been implicated in breast cancer.
Lifestyle Factors: Several lifestyle factors play a key role in obesity and cancer risk. Proper nutrition and physical activity are critical to obesity and cancer prevention. For example, high intake of red meat and processed foods can lead to obesity, and several processed meats and foods have been recognized by the World Health Organization and other researchers as carcinogens (agents that cause cancer). Participating in regular physical activity is not only helpful in reducing obesity risk, but it can also decrease cancer risk. Exercise helps reduce inflammation in the body and balance the negative effects of harmful hormone levels in the body.
Does Weight Loss Help Reduce Cancer Risk?
While we know that weight gain is associated with cancer risk, ongoing research is being done to investigate how weight loss may help to reduce cancer risk and prevent re-occurrence in survivors. The National Cancer Institute has ongoing trials, such as the Breast Cancer WEight Loss (BWEL) Study, to evaluate cancer re-occurrence rates in women who are overweight and have obesity after they have participated in a weight loss program post-diagnosis compared to those who do not participate in a weight loss program.
What Can You Do?
The relationship between obesity and cancer is real. It is important to reduce your risk of developing obesity-related cancers by working toward a healthy weight. The Obesity Medicine Association has trained clinicians who can help treat your obesity and optimize your health. Learn how you can find an obesity medicine clinician here.
This article was written by Sylvia Gonsahn-Bollie, MD. Dr. Gonsahn-Bollie is an internal medicine physician and obesity medicine physician in Richmond, Virginia.