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Reducing the risk of cancer by losing a little bit of weight

May 24, 2012

There are strong links between obesity and cancer, but there are also plenty of practical ways to reduce our risk

By Justin Matlick, Hutchinson Center science writer

With more than two-thirds of Americans now obese or overweight—and researchers drawing a strong link between obesity and many cancers—a new cancer epidemic could be on the horizon. Here at Fred Hutch, we’re trying to prevent that by unraveling why obesity triggers the disease, and by identifying practical ways people can reduce their risk.

This week, Dr. Anne McTiernan published a new study that takes another step toward those goals. In the big picture, McTiernan’s findings are simple: older, obese women can cut their breast cancer risk by losing weight. But there’s more to the story.

McTiernan’s study investigated whether some postmenopausal women who lost weight could reduce the amounts of estrogen and other hormones in their blood. This is a critical question because we’ve learned that fat cells do far more than store energy—they actually produce excess estrogen in men and women. That’s bad news because the hormone can spur many breast cancers to spread and grow.

Dr. Anne MCTiernan

Now for the good news: women in the study who lost weight through diet and/or exercise reduced their blood hormone levels and, in turn, their cancer risk. And they didn’t have to slim down to skin and bones.

“Based on previous research, our results suggest that losing just 5 percent or more of one’s body weight could cut by a quarter to a half the risk for the most common, estrogen-sensitive breast cancers,” McTiernan said.

The study was part of a larger, ongoing effort by McTiernan—and her colleagues in our Public Health Sciences division—to identify how diet and exercise affect cancer risk. As their research progresses, we’ll keep you updated on how it translates into real-world strategies for limiting your cancer risk.

Because even as we work toward lifesaving breakthroughs for people with cancer, we know that one key approach is to prevent the disease before it starts.

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