The Link Between Obesity and Cancer

The Link Between Obesity and Cancer

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Cancer has become arguably the most dreaded word in ANY language. Although there are plenty of other illnesses people dread, including stroke, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and most recently, COVID-19, cancer is currently the most-feared diagnosis across the globe.

When I started my nursing career 47 years ago, most of the seriously ill patients coming in had cardiac issues, bleeding ulcers, or had been in a car accident. Cancer was rare. Now cancer is on the rise, and many physicians will tell you it’s simply because people live longer. Don’t believe it.

Cancer Is a Result
Cancer is an environmental, prescription medication, and body-abuse issue. Heredity (I maintain a healthy skepticism) also plays a role, but just because Grandma or Uncle Benny had cancer doesn’t mean you will. Unless your body becomes overburdened in a way that flips the switch on any predisposition you may have, you may never receive such a diagnosis. This is to say that no matter how many family members you have who have had cancer or how old you become, cancer is never a given. Cancer is a result. But a result of what? What might some of those switches be?

We know plenty of toxins in our environment can cause cancer and that there are cancerous side effects to the various medications being doled out for self-created diseases of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, Type 2 diabetes, and so on. But did you know that roughly 40% of all cancers diagnosed in the U.S. are now linked to being overweight or obese? According to Roswell Park’s Cancer Center, this is the same percentage of cancer diagnoses associated with tobacco use. Meanwhile, as tobacco use has continued to decline, Americans’ waistlines have continued to expand.

Cancers Attributed to Obesity
The top eight cancers fueled by obesity are colorectal, endometrial, esophageal, gall bladder, kidney, ovarian, pancreatic, and post-menopausal breast cancer. The link between obesity and cancer is clear. The situation is worsening as overweight and obese patients not only develop cancer at a higher rate but also have worse survival rates, an increased risk of cancer reoccurrences, and suffer from more side effects. The Annals of Oncology reports that after analyzing 80 breast cancer studies, obese women diagnosed with breast cancer are 355 times more likely to die of their cancer and 41% more likely to die of any disease, rather than women of average weight.

We know the link is there, but it’s essential to understand why obesity has such an impact. The increase in cancer risk for overweight and obese individuals is believed to be primarily due to a cascade of effects caused by the visceral fat cells themselves. Visceral fat cells are oversized and interfere with specific processes in the body, including the hormones insulin, estrogen, and testosterone. Excess visceral fat also compromises the environment for other body cells since the excess fat doesn’t leave much room for oxygen, and a low oxygen environment triggers inflammation.

Inflammation, in general, is the body’s natural response to injury and disease. When you cut yourself, the area around the cut becomes red and painful. This minor inflammation draws blood to the site to help repair the damaged tissue and aid healing. Long-term inflammation caused by excess visceral fat, however, can damage rather than repair the body because inflammation affects how cells divide and die. Consider, then, that cancer occurs when cells reproduce uncontrollably and damage the cells around them. The more inflammation there is, the more cells divide and reproduce, increasing the risk that something will go wrong and a tumor will form.

Inflammation and Food
Beyond being the primary driving component of obesity for most individuals, food choices also enter the inflammation equation more directly. Inflammation is exacerbated by blood sugar and insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar. Ideally, your blood sugar should be in the range of 70–100 mg/dL, but when you consume the wrong foods for your body, the wrong amount of food, or the wrong combination of food, you are likely to raise your blood glucose to over 100 mg/dL within ninety minutes after you eat a meal or snack. This is a state I call pancreatic abuse, which is highly inflammatory.

Poor food choices can also cause the opposite issue: disproportionally high insulin levels. When your pancreas is called into action and produces insulin to lower the high blood sugar levels, the insulin and blood sugar never meet up perfectly—one doesn’t cancel the other out. The pancreas may then make more insulin than needed, resulting in hyperinsulinemia, which is also highly inflammatory.

Clearly, high blood sugar is incredibly unhealthy for your organic machine. In fact, cancer cells LOVE glucose! Researchers and oncologists have known for a long time that cancer cells are fueled by sugar. The research was done more than 80 years ago by Nobel Laureate Otto Warburg, who described how cancer cells eagerly consume glucose. This begs the question—if cancer cells have a sweet tooth and you’re undergoing treatment, is it fair to expect the body to make the most out of medical treatment when food choices actually create a Petri dish for growing cancer cells? Treating the cancer yet fueling cancer cell growth just doesn’t make sense.

Unfortunately, some people in the cancer field disagree. At this very moment, researchers are working on drugs that will block cancer’s sweet tooth in hopes that it will be their death sentence, but blocking the uptake of glucose by a cancer cell via medication is only a temporary fix. If the body is inflamed and the wrong foods are fueling it, it will remain diseased and eventually break down. To prevent cancer, and especially if you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, you must be vigilant about watching your blood sugar. We cannot continue to take our own responsibility for our weight, health, and well-being out of the equation.

Chemotherapy and Obesity
This brings us to another aspect of the cancer and obesity dynamic that needs to be addressed: treatment. Overweight and obese individuals are rolling the dice with chemotherapy, which is dosed according to a person’s body surface area, calculated by height and weight. Obese patients with a high body mass index (BMI) and a high BSA (body surface area) need proportionally higher doses. However, they’re at risk of receiving proportionately lower doses since dosages are often capped at idealized weight out of concern that larger doses may increase side effects.

Overdosing is easily recognized, but underdosing is challenging to assess. It may occur in 30% or more of patients receiving the standard regimen, and those patients are at risk of a significantly reduced anticancer effect. Using published data, it can be calculated that there is an almost 20% relative reduction in survival for women receiving adjuvant chemotherapy for breast cancer due to unrecognized underdosing. Similarly, the cure rate of cisplatin-based chemotherapy for advanced testicular cancer may be reduced by as much as 10%, according to the British Journal of Medicine.

Obesity Really Is an Epidemic
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) states that more than 78 million U.S. adults and 12.5 million children and teens are obese. If the information already presented here hasn’t given you pause, please think seriously about how you feed your loved ones. Change is necessary, if not for you, then for the children and teens in your life.

What Can You Do to Prevent Cancer and Reduce Weight?

  1. Understand that your mouth is not supposed to have a party at every meal!
  2. Realize that no one cares more about you than you. Your health and well-being depend on that!
  3. Don’t smoke (especially marijuana—it will stimulate your appetite).
  4. Avoid hormones (including birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy).
  5. Avoid foods advertised on television!
  6. Cut out sugary drinks—that includes diet sodas and “loaded” coffee drinks.
  7. Eat more fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi.
  8. Exercise. Move your body!
  9. Reduce your intake of red meat and animal fat. Make Wednesdays and Fridays meatless days or, better yet, vegan days.
  10. Eliminate or reduce your intake of dairy.
  11. Limit your skin’s exposure to the sun.
  12. Practice safe sex (especially oral sex).
  13. Get regular cancer screenings: pap smears, prostate exams, breast self-exams and mammography, and colon cancer. If you’ve taken the birth control pill or hormone replacement therapy, be especially vigilant about self breast examinations. If you had mononucleosis as a young adult, make sure you inform your physician—they should regularly check your lymph nodes. Those that have had mono run a greater risk of developing lymphoma.
  14. Know your family medical history and make sure you share it with your physician (know what to avoid to not flip the switch and trigger a full-blown diagnosis).
  15. Eat garlic. Use it in recipes liberally (Iowa Women’s study showed that women who ate the highest amount of garlic had a 50% decreased risk of colon cancer).
  16. Get a good night’s sleep.
  17. Drink green tea.
  18. Make sure your vitamin D level is normal (check out the American Society of Clinical Oncology website).
  19. Eat broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, Swiss chard, and bok choy.
  20. Eat soy and check that you are not buying/eating GMO-grown soy!
  21. Practice proper food combining.
  22. Keep your blood sugar between 70 and 100 (90 minutes after eating a meal or snack).

Bowl of Soy Beans

All About Soy
Part of the uncertainty with soy is due to the intricacy of soy’s effects on the body. Soy contains a high concentration of isoflavones, a type of plant estrogen (phytoestrogen) similar in function to human estrogen but with much weaker effects. Aside from their isoflavone content, soy foods are rich in nutrients, including B vitamins, fiber, potassium, magnesium, and high-quality protein. Unlike some plant proteins, soy is considered a complete protein, containing all nine essential amino acids that the body cannot make and must be obtained from the diet, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.

Some individuals are leery of eating soy-based foods due to information they’ve obtained or stories they’ve heard. But before you make a decision about soy, consider the source.

If you read about a study, was the research done on animals or humans (soy is metabolized differently in animals)? Who funded the study?

Are you taking hormones? What levels are currently in your body (organically or per prescription)? Because soy can have estrogenic properties, its effects can vary depending on the current hormone levels in the body. Premenopausal women have much higher circulating levels of estradiol—the primary form of estrogen in the human body—than postmenopausal women. In this context, soy may act like an anti-estrogen, but among postmenopausal women, soy may act more like an estrogen. Also, women with breast cancer are classified into hormone types—either hormone-positive (ER+/PR+) or hormone-negative (ER–/PR–) breast cancer—and these tumors respond differently to estrogens.

Many breast cancer patients are warned not to eat soy products. Here’s the story, according to the Mayo Clinic: “Studies show that a lifelong diet rich in soy foods reduces the risk of breast cancer in women. This protective effect is less dramatic for women who eat less soy or who start eating soy later in life…. It was once thought that soy foods increase the risk of breast cancer. However, eating a moderate amount of soy foods does not increase the risk of breast cancer—or other types of cancer. A moderate amount is one to two servings a day of whole-soy foods, such as tofu, tempeh (fermented soy), soy milk, and edamame.”

So, where did the idea that consuming soy products increases the risk of breast cancer come from? Researchers initially believed high estrogen levels were linked to an increased risk of breast cancer, and since soy mimics estrogen…well, you can understand. High estrogen levels have been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer. However, soy from food sources does not contain high enough levels of isoflavones to increase the risk of breast cancer.

Soy supplements or isoflavone supplements, on the other hand, generally contain higher levels of isoflavones. Some studies have suggested a link between these supplements and an increased risk of breast cancer in women with a family or personal history of breast cancer or thyroid problems. Think “flipping the switch.”

Make sure that you are comparing apples to apples. Was it whole soy foods such as tofu, tempeh, and soybeans you read about, or was it about soy supplements? I believe the Mayo Clinic is correct in its soy stance.

A cancer diagnosis can be a wake-up call— a chance to get your body in the best shape it has ever been in. But sometimes, simple information can also be a wake-up call, and that’s the goal of this article. Take responsibility for your health today!

I believe in the practice of self-health. You are your primary caregiver; your physician is your secondary caregiver. You are responsible for yourself. Take an interest in your present and future health—your life depends on it.

Candice P. Rosen is a registered nurse, social worker, nutritionist, health counselor, and author. Candice was the first executive director of Gilda’s Club in Chicago (a support center for men, women, and children diagnosed with cancer) and is the creator of The Pancreatic Nutritional Program and Data-Driven Fueling. She has spent her life’s work focused on improving the wellness of both her clients and her community. Her experience as a clinical therapist and as a nurse gives her a unique perspective when it comes to nutrition counseling. As the former Chair of Healthcare Initiatives for Chicago’s Sister Cities International Program, she advocated for preventative medicine, improved disability access, promoted maternal and infant health, and worked to bring awareness to the global obesity and diabetes epidemics. Candice is the mother of four children and grandmother of one.