Obesity leading to increased risk of developing cancer

Obesity is caused due to unhealthy amount of fat in the body. It leads to various other medical conditions like diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, etc. The prevalence of the condition is now on the rise to the extent of being the leading health crisis that’s reaching epidemic proportions. One can blame the obsession with junk food among the younger generations, sedentary lifestyles, and stress. People are putting on weight uncontrollably.

Being overweight or being obese means, one has more fat than muscle and bone. While it may not necessarily affect a -person’s activity levels much, it can be the cause for developing multiple non-communicable diseases like heart problems, diabetes, hypertension and even cancer. Not every obese person may be at the risk of developing cancer, but it is now increasingly being seen a matter of concern for people at the risk of developing cancers.

Obesity and Cancer have a Link

Obesity is a risk factor for cancer. Excess body weight can be an increased risk for developing breast cancer or endometrial cancer. How and when you gain weight is crucial. Gaining weight during childhood and teenage years may become a potential risk factor for some cancers that can happen later in life. Pre menopausal ovarian cancer has a strong co relation to it.

While the link may be a bit complex, there are several possible explanations that suggest the different ways in which obesity could increase the risk of developing some cancers.

  • Obesity or being overweight can cause chronic and low-level inflammation which can damage the DNA and in turn, cause cancer. Long term inflammation can lead to uncontrolled growth of cells, thus leading to cancer. For example, chronic gallbladder inflammation can be a risk factor for gallbladder cancer, hepatitis for liver cancer and gastroesophageal reflux for oesophageal cancer.
  • Excess amount of oestrogen produced by adipose or fat tissue is likely to increase the risks of gynaecological cancers like breast, endometrial, ovarian, among others.
  • While the high levels of insulin are common in obese people, insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) or insulin resistance can lead to type 2 diabetes. These may trigger colon, kidney, prostate, and endometrial cancers.
  • Factors like excess body weight during birth, dynamic weight gain and loss, especially during adulthood can be linked to the development of various cancers.

The cancers with a link to Obesity

Being overweight can cause the following cancers:

  • Prostate cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Gallbladder cancer
  • Uterine cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Oesophageal cancer
  • Multiple myeloma
  • Meningioma

How maintaining a healthy weight helps

To lower the chances of cancer risk, it is imperative to maintain a healthy weight. Losing about 5-10% of the body weight can cut the risk of developing cancer. Those patients experiencing lower weight gain during their adulthood see a lower risks of developing kidney and colon cancers. Any decrease in weight cuts the risks of cancer by maintaining a healthy weight through the lesser production of hormones like insulin, androgens, and oestrogens.

Few tips for preventing obesity and lowering the cancer risks:

  • Exercise at least two and a half hours in a week
  • Eat healthy portions of meal that includes non-starchy vegetables, whole grains, fruits and legumes and animal protein
  • Avoid processed and packaged foods, and sugary drinks
  • Rest adequately to fight fatigue to avoid overeating and eating unhealthy food
  • Stick to the calorie count as suggested
  • Introduce small changes to lifestyle like walking while talking over the phone, eating predetermined portion sizes, maintaining a healthy sleep routine and managing one’s  comorbidities
  • Seek support from the family, physicians, diet consultants and gym trainers to ensure a healthy weight loss
  • Say no to crash diets or to long hours of fasting

Cancer Survival With Obesity

While obesity could worsen one’s quality of life and the overall health of patients with breast, colorectal or prostate cancers, it can up the risks of cancer’s recurrence and progression. Patients with high BMI, especially among men, have a greater risk of local recurrence of rectal cancer while the chances of survival are better when women with breast cancer have considerable weight loss vis-a-vis patients with normal weight. Obesity can increase the risk of incontinence among prostate cancer survivors treated with radical prostatectomy.

Being overweight need not necessarily indicate the risk of developing cancer, but it is advisable to maintain a healthy weight and seek medical attention in case of any unexplained and persisting symptoms that continue to cause fatigue.

Dr. Nitish Acharya, Surgical Oncology, HCG Panda Cancer Hospital, Cuttack.  

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