Here’s the Skinny: Weight Loss and Cancer Prevention
New Year’s Eve is right around the corner and so the resolutions begin to take shape. I’m sure it comes as no surprise that the No. 1 resolution for most of history centers on losing weight, for various reasons. I’m not judging - losing weight has been a constant theme throughout my life. We want to look better, feel better, and be healthier. But are there long-term effects of healthy weight loss?
I am a huge fan of the body positivity movement. All bodies are made differently and work differently, and require different things to be healthy. For as long as I can remember, I have always thought of myself as “big,” and I guess I am in some ways. I am 5-foot 11-inches, and let’s just say, I’ll never meet the standard model measurements. And, I wish that as a child and a young woman I had realized that my size didn’t define me. But, in an effort to age gracefully, I have tried to embrace my body but also learn and understand what is best for me and my long-term health. Working at the cancer center and educating the community on cancer prevention, I see in every research article and pamphlet that obesity heightens your risk for cancer. But why and how?
I am going to break it down into some very basic information, but if you want something more in-depth, my research came from studies presented by the American Cancer Society, American Institute for Cancer Research, Cancer Research UK, and the National Institutes of Health.
Through many years of research, we have figured out specific things that feed cancer cells or mutate cells to turn cancerous. Through weight loss studies, they have seen that a decrease in excess fat has had a huge impact on three of those things - hormones, metabolism, and inflammation.
The most obvious effect was on estrogen. The ovaries are the main estrogen-producing cells in pre-menopausal women, but fat cells make estrogen, too. According to Professor Martin Wiseman from the World Cancer Research Institute, estrogen made by fat cells is a leading culprit in postmenopausal breast and womb cancer. The evidence that estrogen plays a central role in some cancers is black and white. Estrogen makes certain cells – like breast and womb cells – divide, so too much estrogen can encourage cells to keep dividing when they shouldn’t be. And, uncontrolled cell division is fundamentally what cancer is.
In all honesty, this gets complicated. Between insulin and glucose regulation and a number of other chemical processes and growth factors, your metabolism needs a finely tuned balance. Fat cells produce chemical signals that upset that balance, which can basically give cells a green light to divide. And just like stated above, uncontrolled cell division is fundamentally what cancer is.
The theme here is cell division. As fat cells build up, special immune cells (macrophages) are summoned to clear up the dying cells, but those immune cells release a chemical to call other cells to help. Soon it’s all hands on deck, but that is known as chronic inflammation. We need those extra cells to aid in healing when there is inflammation due to an injury. But with chronic inflammation, your body is in a constant state of cell division.
It’s hard when you’re constantly being told to lose weight for one reason or another. With all the talk of BMI, caloric intake, and the number on the scale – when words like obesity start being thrown around, it can feel like a personal attack. The truth is that weight loss is not just a physical process—it is emotional and mental and sometimes even spiritual. In the healthcare field, it seems so clinical - make the change and move forward. But take it from someone who knows, you have to take it one day at a time - sometimes even one choice at a time. You’ll need support and freedom to fail. You’ll have to figure out what works best for you and your body, and that all takes time. Most importantly though, do it for you.
I wanted to share this information about weight and cancer prevention, not to bully or scare anyone, but simply to educate. There is still so much that has yet to be learned on this subject. You can read on every pamphlet that weight loss can reduce your risk for cancer, but sometimes knowing how and why makes all the difference.