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Wake-up Call: A First-hand Look at the Link between Obesity and Cancer

Wake-up Call: A First-hand Look at the Link between Obesity and Cancer

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There are a lot of things that could be said about my Aunt Pam. She was funny, loving, fun, stubborn, caring, a wonderful wife and mom, honest, and fat. Although that last description may seem a bit harsh, her weight had become part of her identity.

Over the years, my aunt, whom we referred to as FAP (Favorite Aunt Pam), slowly began to gain weight. Eventually, she crossed the line from overweight to obese.

Aunt Pam knew she had a weight problem, but had trouble sticking to any of the weight-loss programs she had tried. Because of her weight, Aunt Pam didn't want to be photographed, she couldn't eat during airline flights (because the tray table wouldn't fit), and she began to develop health problems.

More Than Just a Weight Issue

A persistent, hacking cough forced Aunt Pam to visit a doctor. A chest x-ray showed a small shadow that seemed to indicate the beginnings of cancer. It didn't look like there was a massive amount of cancer in her lungs, so we were relieved that it was caught so early. That was around Thanksgiving in 2006.

By Christmas, it was determined that the little bit of cancer in her lungs was present because cancer that had started in her uterus had spread throughout her body. She was already looking at stage IV uterine (or endometrial) cancer.

With almost 3,000 miles separating us, I was only able to see Aunt Pam every few months. Each time I saw her, the change in her appearance was striking. In July 2007, I flew home for her funeral. She was 55.

Looking for Answers and Discovering the Connection between Cancer and Obesity

After the funeral, I began to research uterine cancer. There are many risk factors for endometrial cancer, but one stood out when I thought about Aunt Pam: obesity. After further investigation, I found that a lot of medical research was being conducted on the link between obesity and the development of cancer.

Since my initial search, the American Institute for Cancer Research and Britain’s World Cancer Research Fund have released a report that lists obesity as a major risk factor for cancer. The report, entitled Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: A Global Perspective, was released at the end of October 2007.

Using data compiled from over 7,000 studies published throughout the world, the report outlined numerous risk factors for cancer and recommendations for cancer prevention. For me, the most notable finding in the report was the connection between an increased risk of cancer and a person's body weight and composition. The report further highlighted that a person could decrease his or her risk of cancer by following healthy diet and exercise programs.

Obesity Is Causing More Than Uterine Cancer

Although my research regarding the link between cancer and obesity originally focused on endometrial (uterine) cancer, I found numerous studies, including the one mentioned above, that linked various forms of cancer to obesity.

In addition to uterine cancer, obesity factors (including excess body fat, types of foods consumed, and exercise level) have been linked to:

  • Breast cancer (typically in postmenopausal women)
  • Colorectal cancer (cancer of the colon or the rectum)
  • Esophageal cancer (cancer of the esophagus)
  • Pancreatic cancer (cancer of the pancreas)
  • Renal cell carcinoma (cancer of the kidney)

The above list is not comprehensive. In fact, some experts believe that obesity may be related to most, if not all, types of cancer.

Don't Let It Go – Get Checked Out

Whether it is caused by obesity or another risk factor, endometrial cancer does not develop overnight. As with other cancers, there are signs and symptoms of uterine cancer, including abnormal vaginal bleeding, pelvic pain, and pain during intercourse.

Besides losing weight earlier in her life and thereby reducing her risk for endometrial cancer, a major step that my aunt could have taken to save her life was to see a doctor when her symptoms first developed. Instead, she decided to ignore the possibility of a larger problem and viewed the symptoms as the issue – not as the warning that they were.

Seeing the Signs in Cancer Symptoms

Different types of cancers have different symptoms. The key is to be aware of changes that occur in your body and to alert your doctor of any abnormalities.

Some symptoms of cancer include:

  • Anemia / iron deficiency
  • Back or pelvic pain
  • Blood in stool or urine
  • Changes in bowel movements or urination
  • Difficulty swallowing or indigestion
  • Lumps in breast tissue or testicles
  • Non-healing or slow-healing sores
  • Persistent cough
  • Severe or unrelenting headaches
  • Shape or color changes in warts or moles
  • Swollen glands or persistent lumps
  • Unexpected weight loss

While many possible signs of cancer are also symptoms of other, less serious conditions, you shouldn’t let this keep you from getting them checked out. Find a doctor that you trust and voice your concerns to him or her.

Taking the Weight Off One Step at a Time

Often, the thought of undertaking a weight-loss program can be overwhelming, especially if you are obese. I have found that it is important to view the transition to a healthier lifestyle as a series of goals rather than as one big goal. As stated by the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."

That first step can include any of the following:

  • Speaking to your doctor about your weight
  • Researching reputable weight-loss programs
  • Finding a workout or diet buddy
  • Replacing regular soda with diet soda or water
  • Ordering a side salad instead of fries
  • Eating more vegetables (but not fried veggies) and less fast food
  • Replacing your usual order of steak with grilled chicken breast or fish
  • Taking a walk during your lunch break
  • Using the gym membership that you already have or joining a fitness center during one of its numerous membership promotions

The above list is just a small sample of ways that you can start on the road to a healthier weight and body fat composition. By starting with smaller goals and adding to them as you progress through your program, beating obesity will not seem impossible.

Let My Loss Be Your Wake-up Call

My Aunt Pam is no longer here. She cannot warn you about the link between obesity and cancer, but I can. Her death was my wake-up call. Let it be yours, too.

Being obese can lead to more than just embarrassment about your weight – it can lead to a myriad of health problems and even death. Do something while you can to combat your weight problems. Speak to your doctor about your weight, how it may be affecting your health, and safe methods that you can use to become healthier. It's time for us to wake up and realize that we don't have to let our weight dictate, and possibly end, our lives.

Part two of this Wake-up Call series, featuring the link between obesity and heart problems, will be published in January 2008.

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