Obesity Puts More Women at Risk for Breast Cancer

In the back of nearly every woman’s mind is a lingering fear that she may one day be diagnosed with breast cancer. We can’t help it. Too many of our grandmothers, mothers, sisters, daughters and friends have had their lives turned upside down or cut too short by cancer’s cruel assault. While early detection and new breast cancer treatments are helping more women successfully battle the disease, they can’t squelch the feelings of powerlessness sparked by our awareness that a single cell can mutate into a cancerous form at any time—a stealth killer that can grow inside our bodies without our knowledge. But we can fight back.

C.K. Wang, M.D., a medical oncologist and member of the breast care team at the USMD Center for Breast Care says women can empower themselves through smart choices about diet, weight and exercise—factors that have all been connected to breast cancer. The center—currently undergoing the accreditation process to achieve its NAPBC certification from the National Accreditation Program for Breast Centers—offers a comprehensive array of breast cancer services (screening, diagnosis, biopsy, genetic counseling, lumpectomy and mastectomy surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, reconstructive breast surgery, support groups and a breast cancer nurse navigator),advocates healthy lifestyle choices that are very important in the prevention of breast cancer.

“There are many research studies that show a strong connection between obesity and the breast cancer—especially in postmenopausal women,” says Dr. Wang. “Fat drives the production of estrogen throughout the body. Too much estrogen puts a woman at risk for developing breast cancer tumors—especially tumors that are classified as estrogen receptor (ER) and progesterone receptor (PR) positive.”

In premenopausal women, estrogen is produced in the ovaries. But in postmenopausal women, estrogen hormones (estrone, estradiol and free estradiol) are made in other areas of the body—mainly in fatty (adipose) tissue. Too much estrogen can trigger the onset and recurrence of breast cancer and fuel the growth of breast cancer tumors.

While researchers are still examining the relationship between estrogen and breast cancer in premenopausal women, the link between obesity and breast cancer is concrete in both premenopausal and postmenopausal women. Significant weight gain—especially between the ages of 20 and 50—is associated with a higher occurrence of breast cancer, poorer prognosis and increased mortality rates for women diagnosed with breast cancer.

“Maintaining a healthy Body Mass Index (BMI) is one of the most important things a woman can do to decrease her risk for breast cancer—whether she is pre- or postmenopausal,” Dr. Wang says.

BMI is easy to calculate. Simply divide your weight by your height. The National Institutes of Health has established the following guidelines for BMI:

  •  Underweight = <18.5
  •  Normal weight = 18.5 - 24.9
  •  Overweight = 25 - 29.9
  •  Obesity = BMI of 30 or greater

A healthy diet and regular exercise are key to maintaining a healthy BMI. “It really gets back to following commons sense guidelines that we’ve all been taught,” says Dr. Wang. “Eat low fat, low cholesterol foods. Decrease the amount of red and fatty meats in your diet and choose lean cuts of meat, fish and poultry. Limit the amount of alcohol you consume. And eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetable—at least nine servings a day. Emerging evidence is showing that a diet high in fruits and vegetables can help prevent the occurrence of an aggressive subtype of breast cancer in premenopausal women. Pay attention to portion sizes and the number of calories you consume each day. Studies have shown that when mice were given a calorie-restricted diet they had 30 percent less incidence of cancer.”    

Exercise is another important BMI buster and cancer fighter. “Women should exercise a minimum of 40 to 45 minutes three times a week at a moderately-intense level.  An easy measure of the intensity is that one should break a sweat and find it difficult to carry on a full conversation without feeling completely out of breath,” Dr. Wang says.

Sadly, not enough women are following these breast cancer prevention tips. Of the roughly 45 million women in the United States currently between 45 and 75 years of age, medical experts estimate that 40 percent of them are obese—putting nearly 18 million women at serious risk for breast cancer in their lifetime. This estimate doesn’t include women considered to be overweight who also face a greater risk breast cancer. Help protect yourself by committing to a healthy diet and exercise plan. And have regular health check-ups—including mammograms.

The caring physicians at USMD Center for Breast Care will do everything they can to help you keep breast cancer at bay—whether you are currently cancer-free or have been recently diagnosed with the disease. Please call 888.444.USMD for a FREE physician referral.   

Physicians are independent providers and not employed by USMD Hospital at Arlington, LP.

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