Worried About Cancer? Assess Your Weight

The HealthGal Health Guide
  • You worry about cancer and you hopefully know the milestone ages for a baseline mammogram (if you’re a woman) and colonoscopy.  You worry about carcinogens like plastics and pesticides.  But do you connect your weight to your risk factor for certain cancers?  This question was recently posed by Sanjay Gupta M.D. of CNN to several doctor specialists, specifically in the context of trying to prevent cancers associated with obesity.  There are ample screenings to detect (early) cancer, but what about prevention screening tools like waist and weight measurements to intercept one of the confirmed causes (excess weight, especially abdominal weight) of certain cancers, like prostate and breast cancer?

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    Six doctors from different medical specialties were involved in the conversation at MedPage Today online: Payal Bhandari, MD, a primary care physician in private practice at Advanced Health in San Francisco, California; Andrew Buelt, DO, a resident in family medicine at Bardmoor Family & Preventive Care in Largo, Florida; W. Timothy Garvey, MD, of the Nutrition Obesity Research Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham; Yehuda Handelsman, MD, of the Metabolic Institute of America in Tarzana, California; Karl Nadolksy, DO, an endocrinology fellow at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland; and  Jodi Ritsch, MD, a primary care physician in private practice at The Joyful Doc Clinic S.C. in Menomonie, Wisconsin. 


    Initial facts offered by the doctors

    • In the presence of obesity, there is nearly a three-fold increase in cancers, especially breast and prostate cancers.  Diabetes further increases the risk of breast cancer, and though it seems to lower the risk for prostate cancer in men, in the presence of diabetes, those men who develop prostate cancer seem to have higher mortality rates.
    • Obesity and insulin resistance are important risk factors for many cancers.
    • Placing an emphasis on healthy lifestyle before a patient develops cancer, or after they are treated for cancer, could overall reduce rates of primary cancers or recurrences.
    • There seems to be widespread “obesity fatigue,” and it’s fueling a disconnect between causes of cancer and other chronic diseases that take time to manifest, and the importance and long term payoff of a healthy diet, exercise, and a generally healthy lifestyle.  Lifestyle habit change requires weekly management and the health care system may still not support this intense approach.  Doctors and patients may also be struggling with how to offer and then how to implement meaningful lifestyle change.
    • There appears to be no inherent value in a healthy body, and yet much focus on being afraid of disease, especially cancers.


    A recent position on diabetes and obesity by the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists underscores the need for lifestyle intervention, especially weight loss and increased exercise, in addition to early screenings for cancers.  The doctors in the discussion also acknowledged that obesity by itself is a chronic disease, and it has now passed smoking as “the leading modifiable cause of heart disease.” 


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    One of the doctors pointed out that while everyone obsesses about “getting cancer,” and women have for the most part embraced mammogram screenings, there is still huge avoidance in acknowledging obviously overweight individuals with clear symptoms, like swollen legs, who will likely die from the number one killer of men and women, heart disease, long before they may develop certain cancers.


    The take-away message 


    Along with blood pressure, pulse, and respiration vital signs, number of minutes of exercise per week, weight and waist size are crucial measurements,  and the result of those measurements should lead to a “give and take” by doctor and patient on ways to improve lifestyle habits.  The pace at which you engage with habit change is a personal decision, but meaningful changes are necessary to avoid cancers, which are sometimes driven by excess weight.  To ignore weight and “only screen for cancer” is to really denying the obvious connection between lifestyle habits, weight and cancer. 


    If you are overweight, it’s great that you are concerned enough to screen for cancer.  But you are more likely to die from the number one killer of men and women, heart disease.   One battle plan, to change lifestyle, will help to lower the risk of several diseases.  If you are willing to attack your weight, you will greatly reduce the risk of both cancer and heart disease. 


    Getting started

    • Be willing to ask your doctor to weigh you and take your waist measurement
    • Ask for some initial “easy changes” that you can make to impact your weight
    • Ask for a recommendation to a dietician or nutritionist
    • Ask for a diet outline or recommendation based on your current health situation, your goals, affordability
    • Find out if any gyms in your neighborhood are offering any deals on membership – a first time visit with a personal trainer is usually recommended
    • Read my other blogs (links included in this blog) for food swap outs and information on basic nutrition principles


    Amy Hendel is a Physician Assistant and Health Coach with over 20 years of experience.  Noted author, journalist and lifestyle expert, she brings extensive expertise to her monthly shareposts.  Her most recent book, The 4 Habits of Healthy Families is available for purchase online, and you can watch her in action on her shows Food Rescue and What's for Lunch? Sign up for her daily health tweets or catch her daily news report at www.healthgal.com.



Published On: June 01, 2014