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The Link between Cancer and Obesity

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States. Among the many types of cancer, the International Agency for Research on Cancer identifies 13 types specifically associated with overweight and obesity. These affect: the covering of the brain and spinal cord (meningioma), esophagus, pancreas, liver, colon and rectum, thyroid, gallbladder, upper stomach, kidney, blood cells (multiple myeloma), uterus, ovaries and breast (in postmenopausal women). Further, these cancers account for 40 percent of cancers diagnosed in the United States.

Further, while occurrences of cancers that are not associated with overweight and obesity are declining, cancers that are associated with greater weight are on the rise (with the exception of colorectal cancers, which likely are declining thanks to higher rates of screening). This is a societal problem and will continue to be so as the long as the percentage of the adult population who are overweight or obese continues to increase. Unfortunately, this seems highly likely as obesity has been on a near nonstop upward trajectory in the U.S. for the past four decades, nearly tripling worldwide since 1975.

Childhood obesity, which is also high at over eighteen percent of young people up to the age of 19, will continue to contribute to the number of cancer cases.  More than half of youth (57 percent) will — literally — carry that weight with them into adulthood, increasing their likelihood of cancer and additional comorbidities that are associated with excess weight. At the other end of the spectrum, 30 to 40 percent of adults over the age of 65 also have obesity. For this group the link between obesity and mortality, as well as the risk of developing serious health problems (including multiple types of cancers), increases with age.

Even after receiving treatment for cancer, patients with obesity have an uphill battle. Their prognoses are worse, they have an increased risk of metastatic disease, their remission is shorter, and there are indications that survival rates may decrease for patients with obesity depending on the type of cancer. Among cancer survivors, these patients report lower physical and functional well-being, poorer quality of life and fatigue.

Weight loss vastly reduces the likelihood of more than a dozen types of cancers. Despite possible discomfort  on behalf of both physicians and patients in talking about the reality of weight-related diseases, obesity and weight loss solutions must be discussed with the same level of importance as the cancer that it might cause. Rapid weight loss through the use of meal replacements can provide the flexibility and motivation necessary to kickstart a lifestyle change. Prevention is clearly the best solution.

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