Size Matters: Examining Obesity's Role in Cancer Outcomes

Obesity can negatively affect cancer treatment outcomes, trigger disease recurrence and shorten longevity. Organized weight loss programs and exercise can help patients protect themselves.
BY DON VAUGHAN
PUBLISHED: DECEMBER 14, 2016
“After a cancer diagnosis, you can go into a shell and look for what is comforting and familiar. That was food for me. I wish I had the forethought to have released my anxiety with a walk instead of overeating.”
— SUSAN YANKEE - PHOTO BY ANGELA CHICOSKI
“After a cancer diagnosis, you can go into a shell and look for what is comforting and familiar. That was food for me. I wish I had the forethought to have released my anxiety with a walk instead of overeating.” — SUSAN YANKEE - PHOTO BY ANGELA CHICOSKI
Susan Yankee, an opera singer and voice teacher in Madison, Connecticut, was diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2015 at age 48. She had a single mastectomy and reconstruction, but didn’t need chemotherapy, and today takes the hormonal drug tamoxifen daily.

Yankee admits to being overweight at the time of her diagnosis. She knew she needed to lose weight, but felt overwhelmed by her cancer and started to “stress eat” to help her cope emotionally. As a result, she gained 10 pounds over the next six months. “After a cancer diagnosis, you can go into a shell and look for what is comforting and familiar,” Yankee says. “That was food for me. I wish I had the forethought to have released my anxiety with a walk instead of overeating.”

Yankee is far from alone, oncologists report. In fact, as the obesity epidemic in the United States worsens, cancer specialists are seeing more and more patients who are either overweight or obese at the time of diagnosis. This is concerning, they say, because obesity can adversely affect treatment outcomes, influence mortality and increase a patient’s risk of recurrence.

The good news, experts say, is that it’s never too late or impossible to lose weight and, even after a cancer diagnosis, trimming down may bring many lasting health benefits. Studies show that simple, common-sense plans for healthy eating and exercise — particularly those that are supervised through programs aimed at survivors of cancer — are associated with lower cancer risks, and for those with cancer, a smaller risk of recurrence. Whether these interventions are truly responsible for this decreased risk is not proven, but experts assume it to be the case. There are several controlled trials in progress that are formally testing whether exercise or diet aimed at both conditioning and weight loss could have a favorable impact on cancer risk.



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