By Dr. Dawn M. Sweet
According to the American Cancer Society, excluding skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common type of cancer diagnosis in women.
Losing weight is important for several reasons — reducing one’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes or improving cardiovascular health, to name a few common reasons. Added to this list of reasons, for women, is reducing the risk of breast cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, excluding skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common type of cancer diagnosis in women. While breast cancer can occur in men, it occurs far more frequently in women.
While there are several factors that may contribute to cancer risk (heredity/family history, genes and age), one factor that is sometimes overlooked is weight. Being overweight, especially after menopause, increases a women’s chances of not only developing breast cancer but also its recurrence following treatment. The relationship between weight and breast cancer is complex. For example, the location of the extra weight, around the midsection (abdominal fat) may be a greater risk factor than extra weight in your hips and thighs. Despite the complexity of the relationship between breast cancer and weight, evidence suggests that losing weight can reduce your risk.
Why are Postmenopausal Women with Obesity at Risk?
The reasons for weight gain are complex and varied, and there are several factors that can contribute to obesity:
- Fat Tissue and Estrogen. Fat tissue produces estrogen, a hormone that is implicated in women’s sexual and reproductive health and controlling a woman’s menstrual cycle. Estrogen can be produced in fat tissue (adipose tissue), so following menopause, when ovaries produce less estrogen, fat tissue becomes a major source estrogen production. Higher levels of estrogen and higher levels of fat can increase the risk of cancer.
- Breast Density. Women with obesity tend to have more dense breast tissue, which is associated with breast cancer. Denser breast tissue can make it more challenging to identify tumors or lumps on mammograms.
How Can Postmenopausal Women with Obesity Reduce Their Breast Cancer Risk?
- Healthy Diet. Healthy Weight. Adding more fruits, vegetables, and lean protein to your daily food intake can help jumpstart weight loss. Consider putting fruits and vegetables in easy-to-access places in your kitchen. For example:
- Leave some bananas, apples, or pears in a bowl on your counter so when you are wishing for something sweet, you can grab a piece of fruit.
- Pre-cut bell peppers or carrots and leave them in an easy-to-see place in your refrigerator. Eat healthy fats, like those found in nuts, seeds, or fish.
- Avoid processed foods and sugary snacks and foods high in unhealthy trans-fat.
- Physical Activity. Get moving! It’s recommended that everyone should get 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week. If you are not able to participate in 150 minutes of moderate exercise, build up to it.
- Start by going for a walk. Find a podcast or audio book you enjoy, or call a friend, and go for a 15 minute each day to help build stamina.
- Go for a bike ride.
- Take an exercise class at your local rec center or gym.
- Go swimming.
- Go for a hike, a jog, a run or any other physical activity that you enjoy and can participate in safely.
Work with your health care team, and talk with them about tailoring a healthy eating plan and exercise plan that is right for you. While losing weight and becoming more active will not eliminate your risk of developing breast cancer after menopause, these steps could certainly help lower your risk. Because health recommendations do evolve over time, it is important to stay informed through regular checkups and conversations with your health care team.
About the Author: Dr. Dawn M. Sweet has over 20 years of experience in the field of communication. Dr. Sweet has given several invited talks to and workshops for academic and private sector audiences on the role of nonverbal and verbal communication in achieving positive outcomes and mitigating bias. Her research has been published in several top ranked peer-review journals, and it has been featured on NPR’s River to River / All Things Considered, Buzzfeed, and Science Daily. Her research has also been used to inform expert testimony.