Understanding the Link Between Weight and Breast Cancer: Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Blog image of pink ribbon: excess weight and breast cancer

The month of October is nationally recognized as Breast Cancer Awareness Month. This month calls on all of us to do our part in sharing breast cancer education, prevention tips, support for patients, and also to contribute to efforts aimed at finding a cure.

Did you know that breast cancer is linked to excess weight? Excess weight, poor diet, and lack of physical activity can put postmenopausal women at an increased risk for breast cancer. With 70% of postmenopausal women in the U.S. estimated to have excess weight or obesity, understanding the link between excess weight and breast cancer is important.

Connecting Excess Weight and Breast Cancer

Excess weight is actually a risk for many cancers, breast cancer included. The relationship works by influencing factors that also affect cancer in postmenopausal women including:

  • Insulin resistance
  • Changes in levels of sex hormones
  • Chronic inflammation

The link, however, is less clear in pre-menopausal women. What we do know is that it’s not uncommon for women with a breast cancer diagnosis to gain weight. Unfortunately, this can lead to weight-related conditions like heart disease and diabetes. In turn, after surgery for breast cancer, patients may have an increased risk of infection, poor healing, lymphedema, fatigue, and other health challenges.

Risk Factors for Breast Cancer

When it comes to the risk of breast cancer, some factors are in our control while others are not.

What You Cannot Change:

  • Your gender (breast cancer is 100 times more common in women than in men)
  • Your age (most cases occur in women 55 and older)
  • Your genetics (5-10% of cases are thought to be due to genes)
  • Your family history (risks are higher if a relative has breast cancer)

What You Can Change:

  • Your alcohol intake
  • Your weight, to some degree
  • Your activity levels
  • Your diet

What You Can Do for Prevention:

  • See a healthcare provider regularly for mammograms and health screenings.
  • Do what is in your power to manage your weight.
  • Take part in aerobic activity at least 150 minutes a week at a moderate intensity, or 75 minutes a week at a higher intensity, in addition to muscle-strengthening exercises at least twice per week.
  • Limit your alcohol intake to a couple of drinks each week or less.
  • Talk to your healthcare provider about your family history and lowering your risk.

Treatment and Weight Management

Thankfully, survival rates for patients with early-stage breast cancer have risen. A woman who is diagnosed early has a 98% chance of being cancer-free five years later. 10-15 years after treatment, survival rates are still more than 77%.

Many care and treatment plans recommend weight-loss via diet and exercise if the patient has early-stage cancer and a high BMI. However, a safe rate is no more than two pounds per week and must be approved by an oncologist (cancer specialist).

For some patients, however, weight-loss may not be advised until later on once chemotherapy, radiation, and/or surgery are complete. In such cases, the patient will likely be advised to focus on preventing weight gain through lifestyle efforts and rebuilding muscle mass.

Of course, some patients lose weight with treatment without trying to. Weight-loss of this kind should always be addressed with a healthcare provider because it can result in nutrient deficiencies, extreme fatigue, and a weakened immune system – all of which can make a cancer diagnosis worse.

The Bottom Line

The relationship between weight and breast cancer is complex. However, it has been shown that weight-loss and weight maintenance through healthy eating, a balanced diet, and regular exercise can help manage or prevent it. These efforts can drastically improve survival rates and recovery.

If you have excess weight and/or breast cancer, visit your healthcare provider regularly for exams and treatment. You should also find a support system to encourage and guide you on your health journey. If you have a loved one struggling with one or both of these challenges, your support may greatly help them.

For more information on excess weight and breast cancer, please CLICK HERE.

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