Preventing Breast Cancer
Can exercise and weight loss help to prevent breast cancer?
Many women dread their mammograms and self exams, worrying that they may find a lump, but those women who have had breast cancer live with an even darker umbrella over their heads: their cancer could come back. Breast cancer is a sneaky disease that comes in 50 shades of pink, black and gray! While patients are told to have chemotherapy, radiation and take a pill for 5 years, these measures are not guarantees. Many of us know women who have had their cancer come back 2 years, 5 years, 10 years or even 20 years later. And they did everything they were told to.
But we are starting to understand how important weight loss is for keeping cancer in remission. A recent study out of Albert Einstein College of Medicine shows that being overweight gives women — especially those with hormone-sensitive tumors — a higher risk of cancer recurrence and makes them more likely to die from cancer.
The good news is that increasing evidence shows weight loss and regular exercise can significantly decrease the risk of breast cancer coming back and the risk of dying of the disease. Weight loss and regular exercise (or either one of them) also reduces risk for heart disease, diabetes, and other cancers as well. The exact mechanism of how it works is still unclear. We don’t know whether weight loss decreases the amount of fat that can be converted to estrogen to stimulate a cancer or whether it is a matter of modulating insulin levels.
What’s interesting is that for years women have told me that they were instructed to eat whatever made them feel good and that it didn’t make a difference in their cancer no matter what they ate. Others were told not to get too thin because it would make people think that they were sick and that the cancer had come back. Instead, they were offered doughnuts and candy during their chemotherapy sessions.
Only recently have oncology programs started truly involving a nutritionist on their staff and including a diet plan for their patients. A recent study out of Italy shows that gaining weight is not an inevitable side effect of chemotherapy and that when offered cooking classes and shopping plans, women do lose weight and inches! Physical rehabilitation programs are being mandated for many chronic diseases, including cancer. That means more than physical therapy post-surgery; it means instruction in physical exercise. Patients are being given pedometers with instructions to keep track of their steps or putting their readings into an app. Some programs are including individualized nutrition programs. Perhaps someday there will even be treadmills or elliptical machines in the waiting rooms!
As I wrote a few weeks ago, the jury is still out about what works better for weight loss — diet or exercise — but we know that in breast cancer both are important! And weight loss can provide a double whammy: feeling good about yourself and living longer! We have written many articles about weight loss, diet and exercise. For more information, start with our natural weight loss article.
Sparano, JA, et al. 2012. Obesity at diagnosis is associated with inferior outcomes in hormone receptor-positive operable breast cancer. Cancer. URL: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22926690.
Villarini, A, et al. 2012. Preventing weight gain during adjuvant chemotherapy for breast cancer: a dietary intervention study. Breast Cancer Res Treatment, 135(2), 581-9. URL: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22869285.