By: Austin Perlmutter, MD, Medical Student, Miller School of Medicine
Years of data now clearly demonstrate connections between obesity and increased risk for cancer. However, a new study published in the well-respected medical journal, The Lancet, is one of the first to examine this risk on a large scale. With over 5 million participants, the actual data is even more potent.
This study focused on development of 22 different types of cancers and the change in frequency of cancer diagnosis with obesity, measured by way of increased body mass index (BMI). Researchers started with over 5 million participants without a cancer diagnosis, then looked at the BMI in those who developed cancer. Ten of the types of cancers showed up significantly more in those with higher BMI’s, with leukemia and uterine cancer, gallbladder, kidney, cervical and thyroid cancers increasing in direct proportion to increases in BMI. Of note, 2 types of cancers (prostate and premenopausal breast) showed up less with increased BMI.
When distilled down, there is a strong connection between obesity (increased BMI) and new diagnosis of multiple types of cancer. This connection could mean that up to 41% of uterine cancers and over 10% of gallbladder, liver, kidney and colon cancers are directly related to being overweight or obese. This is without question a shocking statistic, and consistent with a 2003 New England Journal Of Medicine study of nearly 1 million Americans which found being overweight “could account for 14 percent of all deaths from cancer in men and 20 percent of those in women.”
With all the data, many have accepted the connection between obesity and cancer. This is exemplified in commentary from Dr. Peter Campbell of the American Cancer Society, when he states:
We have sufficient evidence that obesity is an important cause of unnecessary suffering and death from many forms of cancer.
His statement is reasonable. If being overweight causes cancer, and we have viable ways to lose weight and keep it off, then the cancer death toll is needlessly high.
Cancer is a devastating disease, and though some therapies are successful, it remains the 2nd leading cause of death in America. The obesity-cancer connection means we may have a strong way to keep cancer from happening in the first place. If we can prevent cancer with techniques like diet and exercise, shouldn’t this be a priority?