Each year during the first weekend in June, thousands of oncologists, advocacy partners, and other healthcare professionals gather at the American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Annual Meeting to hear the latest information on important cancer research breakthroughs and findings. Every year I’ve attended, I am awed by all the good work that is happening in the field of cancer, even though cancer patient education is my life’s work each and every day. While there is and will likely continue to be plenty of press around the exciting developments in immunotherapies and targeted treatments that will improve treatments and increase cancer-free survivorship, I hope that this year the press will also take notice of the role obesity plays in cancer (in both first diagnosis and recurrence).
Each year, more than 40,000 cancer diagnoses are attributed to obesity, and both obesity and being overweight are implicated in 15-20% of all cancer-related deaths.1 “Obesity is definitely on its way to replacing tobacco as the number one preventable/modifiable cause of cancer,” tweeted Clifford Hudis, MD, Chief of Breast Cancer Medicine at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
As I witnessed ASCO celebrate its 50th Annual Meeting this year with touches reminiscent of the 1960s, I wondered about the smoking and obesity “landscape” of the 1960s. I came across a few compelling findings: 50 years ago the Surgeon General released a report on smoking and health. Since that time, smoking prevalence among U.S. adults has been reduced by half. 2 Ironically, during that same time period, the prevalence of obesity among adults has more than doubled. 3 These two health issues have virtually flip-flopped in the course of 50 years.
So what can I do as an executive leading a cancer patient education nonprofit and as someone who has witnessed the connection between weight and a loved one’s cancer diagnosis? Leading an organization that helps people with nutritional support, side effects management, and healthy weight in survivorship, I can advocate for more attention to this create stories, link articles, and produce testimonies and expert opinions on the risks and link between obesity and cancer.
As a nation with more than one-third of the adult population and 17% of children and adolescents now considered obese, we don’t have time to sit back and wait. Now is the time for all of us to take action. We need more awareness and proactive approaches to help people make the right choices when it comes to healthy weight management. Not only should this reduce the number of diagnoses of cancer and, therefore, the pain, suffering and cost of medical care that accompanies it, but overall improved health should emerge.
1Eheman C, Henley SJ, Ballard-Barbash R, et al. Annual Report to the Nation on the status of cancer, 1975-2008, featuring cancers associated with excess weight and lack of sufficient physical activity.Cancer.2012 May 1;118(9):2338-2366.
2The Health Consequences of Smoking 50 Years of Progress: A Report of the Surgeon General. Published January 17, 2014. US Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, Atlanta, Ga.
3 Ogden CL, Carroll MD. Prevalence of overweight, obesity, and extreme obesity among adults: United States, trends 1960 1962 through 2007 2008 . NCHS Health E-Stat. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics; 2010.