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Excess weight and cancer

Many of us strive to maintain a healthy body weight, but with our busy lives this can be a challenge. Yet, maintaining a healthy weight has many advantages. It can help you feel more confident and improve your self-image, as well as help reduce your risk of health problems, such as diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure. Also, 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 your cancer treatment and increase your risk of recurrence. Fortunately, making a few lifestyle adjustments, such as upping your physical activity and eating healthier, can help you shed the extra pounds and improve your strength, energy and overall well-being – whether you are going through cancer treatment or not.

Understanding your body mass index

We all 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 you fall into this category, it’s important to be aware of the fact so you can work toward losing the extra weight and improving your health.

The most common way to measure whether it’s time to pay more attention to your weight is by calculating your 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.

Also, excess weight can interfere with cancer treatment if you’ve 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 you receive the appropriate treatment plan for your needs, and avoid any treatment interruptions.

Cancer treatments and weight gain

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

Weight gain can sometimes occur when anticancer drugs cause your body to retain extra fluid, a condition known as edema. Hormone therapy can cause your 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 you maintain a healthy weight during treatment. Consult your doctor or dietitian for help with finding a healthy balance.

Making lifestyle changes

It may be difficult to think about weight loss while you’re undergoing treatment for cancer or focusing on recovery. However, with help from your doctor and a dietitian, you can find ways to maintain a healthy weight and, at the same time, improve your 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, the newest CTCA hospital opening on August 15, 2012 in Newnan, GA. Gabbert notes that behavior modification, nutritional intake and physical activity are the keys to losing weight.

* Consult your primary doctor and oncologist before starting any new weight loss program.

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