Obesity and Gynecologic Cancers

There is so much in the news these days about the diseases associated with obesity--heart disease, diabetes, joint disorders, and such--but what about obesity and cancer?

In fact, research shows that only 50 percent of the population are aware of how many cancers are closely associated with obesity. Cancers linked to obesity include those of the breast, endometrium, colon, thyroid, pancreas, esophagus, gallbladder, and kidneys. Clearly, some of these cancers are specific to women, so let’s discuss them with regard to obesity.

What do “overweight” and “obese” mean?

Overweight is defined as a body mass index (BMI) between 25 and 29.9. Obese is defined as a BMI of 30 or more. And what is BMI? It’s a way to measure the amount of fat in an adult’s body, based on that person’s height and weight. If you would like to know your BMI, just search “BMI calculators” on the Internet--there are many online.

Why does obesity increase the risk of GYN cancers?

A woman’s fat cells produce the female hormone estrogen. This means, of course, that the more body fat she is carrying, then the more estrogen her body is being exposed to at all times. This is important because we further know that increased estrogen exposure—particularly in postmenopausal women—increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer.

The uterine lining, or endometrium, also reacts to the presence of estrogen, thickening naturally when it is exposed to this hormone. And if estrogen production is increased due to excess fat in the body, then this causes additional exposure to the hormone and additional thickening--with the concern that the lining of the uterus might thicken too much. And if the endometrium becomes overgrown, this condition can lead to endometrial or uterine cancer.

The higher one’s BMI is, the greater this risk becomes, so that women whose BMIs are greater than 25 are 6 times more likely to develop endometrial cancer than are those with lower BMIs.

What can you do?

Obviously, it’s much healthier to maintain a BMI that’s below 25. Use your BMI calculator to determine your own body mass index, and if this number indicates that you’re overweight or obese, begin conferring with your healthcare provider. (Note: Women and men who are extremely obese, and carrying perhaps 100 or more pounds of extra weight, are sometimes advised by their providers to consider weight-loss surgery.)

What you and your provider can do

With the help of your provider, first make certain that your weight status isn’t due to any underlying health problems. Then, if everything is normal on that front, you can start discussing diet choices and exercise programs. (Your healthcare provider must give the OK before you may begin any major new diet and exercise changes.)

Agree on a sensible weight-loss plan and then start carrying it out. With some work and commitment, you should be able to bring your BMI below 25, and you just might spare yourself from a GYN cancer.


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