A study suggests that women age 50 and older who lost weight and kept it off have a lower risk of breast cancer than women whose weight remained the same.
Still, there are a number of concerns about the study:
- The results apply only to women who are not using hormone replacement therapy.
- The women self-reported their weight during the study. It’s possible that a number of the women didn’t report their weight correctly, which would influence the study results.
- Much of the information was collected in the 1980s and 1990s, when people overall weighed less.
- There was a lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity among the people in the study.
The research was published online on Dec. 17, 2019, by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Read the abstract of “Sustained weight loss and risk of breast cancer in women ≥50 years: a pooled analysis of prospective data.”
Excess weight and breast cancer risk
Overweight and obese women — defined as having a BMI (body mass index) higher than 25 — have a higher risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer compared to women who maintain a healthy weight, especially after menopause. Being overweight also can increase the risk of breast cancer coming back (recurrence) in women who’ve been diagnosed with the disease.
This higher risk is partially because fat cells make estrogen; extra fat cells mean more estrogen in the body, and estrogen can make hormone-receptor-positive breast cancers develop and grow. Scientists also have recently found that extra fat cells can trigger long-term, low-grade inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation has been linked to a higher risk of breast cancer recurrence; the proteins secreted by the immune system seem to stimulate breast cancer cells to grow, especially estrogen-receptor-positive breast cancer in postmenopausal women.
Statistics show that more than 2 out of 3 adult women are overweight or obese. While we know that excess weight is a risk factor for developing breast cancer after menopause, there is not enough research to figure out if losing weight can lower that increase in risk. This is why the researchers did this study.
About the study
Researchers from Harvard University and the American Cancer Society used information from the Pooling Project of Prospective Studies of Diet and Cancer to do the study. The Pooling Project of Prospective Studies of Diet and Cancer is an international consortium of studies that aim to evaluate any links between diet and body proportions and the risk of several cancers, including breast cancer.
The analysis included more than 180,000 women age 50 and older from 10 studies in the United States, Australia, and Asia. The women’s weights were recorded three times over 10 years of the study:
- when the women joined the study
- about 5 years after the women joined the study
- about 10 years after the women joined the study
The women were said to have a stable weight if they lost or gained about 4 or less pounds in the time intervals between when their weight was recorded. If they lost more than 4 pounds, they were said to have lost weight and if they gained more than 4 pounds, they were said to have gained weight.
A woman was said to have sustained weight loss if she lost more than 4 pounds between the first and second weight reports and didn’t gain it back by the third weight report.
Nearly 7,000 of the women were diagnosed with breast cancer during the study.
Overall, the results found that the larger amount of sustained weight loss, the lower the risk of breast cancer.
- Women who lost 4.4 to 10 pounds had a 13% lower risk than women with stable weight.
- Women who lost 10 to 20 pounds had a 16% lower risk than women with stable weight.
- Women who lost more than 20 pounds had a 26% lower risk than women with stable weight.
“Our results suggest that even a modest amount of sustained weight loss is associated with lower breast cancer risk for women over 50,” said Lauren Teras, scientific director for epidemiology research at the American Cancer Society and lead author of the study. “These findings may be a strong motivator for the two-thirds of American women who are overweight to lose some of that weight. Even if you gain weight after age 50, it is not too late to lower your risk of breast cancer.”
What this means for you
In addition to the concerns about the study, it’s also important to know that the study only shows an association between sustained weight loss and a lower risk of breast cancer. It does not prove cause and effect.
Still, the results of this study echo results from the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study presented in 2017: Overweight postmenopausal women who lost about 10 pounds had a lower risk of breast cancer compared to women who didn’t lose weight.
Losing weight can be hard as you get older, but it can be done with careful changes to your diet and daily exercise. The first thing to do is talk to your doctor about a healthy weight for you based on your age, height, body type, and activity level. Next, talk to your doctor about a safe and sensible plan to lose weight designed specifically for you and your needs.
In addition to lower breast cancer risk, losing weight also can help lower any inflammation in your body and also reduce your risk of heart disease and other conditions.
For more information on breast cancer risk and weight, as well as steps you can take to lose weight, visit the Breast Cancer Risk Factors: Being Overweight page in the Breastcancer.org Lower Your risk section.
Cancer is a disease in which cells in the body grow out of control. When cancer starts in the breast, it is called breast cancer. Except for skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer in American women.
Breast cancer screening means checking a woman’s breasts for cancer before she has any symptoms. A mammogram is an X-ray picture of the breast. Mammograms are the best way to find breast cancer early, when it is easier to treat and before it is big enough to feel or cause symptoms.
Some things may increase your risk
The main factors that influence your breast cancer risk are being a
woman and getting older. Other risk factors include—
• Changes in breast cancer-related genes (BRCA1 or BRCA2).
• Having your first menstrual period before age 12.
• Never giving birth, or being older when your first child is born.
• Starting menopause after age 55.
• Taking hormones to replace missing estrogen and progesterone
in menopause for more than five years.
• Taking oral contraceptives (birth control pills).
• A personal history of breast cancer, dense breasts, or some other
• A family history of breast cancer (parent, sibling, or child).
• Getting radiation therapy to the breast or chest.
• Being overweight, especially after menopause.
Some warning signs of breast cancer are—
• New lump in the breast or underarm (armpit).
• Thickening or swelling of part of the breast.
• Irritation or dimpling of breast skin.
• Redness or flaky skin in the nipple area or the breast.
• Pulling in of the nipple or pain in the nipple area.
• Nipple discharge other than breast milk, including blood.
• Any change in the size or the shape of the breast.
• Pain in the breast.
Get to know Hematologist and Oncologist Dr. James Everett Carinder, who serves patients in Covington, Louisiana.
Noted for his expertise in lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and breast cancer, Dr. Carinder is a board-certified hematologist-oncologist who has over 25 years of experience in his field. He practices at Northshore Oncology Associates in Covington, Louisiana.
Patients come to Northshore Oncology Associates for comprehensive medical care in a state-of-the-art, patient-centered environment that cares for them from diagnosis to during and after treatment. The highly- experienced physicians and health care staff working there use their skills, compassion, and the latest medical knowledge to care for patients and their loved ones.
With a stellar reputation, Dr. Carinder is also affiliated with St. Tammany Cancer Center and Slidell Memorial Hospital.
His acclaimed career in medicine began in 1994 when he earned his Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine Degree from the Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Pursuing advanced medical training, he completed both his residency and fellowship training at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation.
Thereafter, he became board-certified in hematology and medical oncology by the American Board of Internal Medicinem a physician-led, non-profit, independent evaluation organization driven by doctors who want to achieve higher standards for better care in a rapidly changing world.
Attributing his success to his excellent training, Dr. Carinder remains a member of several professional organizations, including the American Medical Association, the American Society of Hematology, and the American Society of Clinical Oncology. He is also a Fellow of the American College of Physicians.
Hematology is the branch of medicine concerned with the study of the cause, prognosis, treatment, and prevention of diseases related to blood. Oncology is a branch of medicine that deals with the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer. A hematologist-oncologist is a physician who specializes in the diagnosis, treatment, or prevention of blood diseases and cancers such as iron-deficiency anemia, hemophilia, sickle-cell disease, leukemia, and lymphoma.
On a more personal note, one of Dr. Carinder’s hobbies is swimming.
Thanksgiving usually isn’t considered the healthiest holiday. But making exercise apart of your holiday tradition can help you maintain a healthy weight. And, it can keep you from feeling so guilty about that slice of pumpkin pie.
Regular exercise is one of the best things you can do for your health and to lower your cancer risk.
Try exercising most days. Each week, try to complete 150 minutes of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity.
During the holidays, many people skip their scheduled workouts. But making exercise part of your holiday is one way to make sure you complete the recommend amount of activity.
We asked some of our doctors, nurses and staff members what they do to make their Thanksgiving a little healthier. Here’s what they had to say:
“If I travel, I run on my own or with my family when I visit them.” – Robin, nurse supervisor
“We try to cook healthier versions of typical Thanksgiving meals so there is less guilt afterwards.” – Samantha, program director
“My wife and I compete in a Turkey Trot, a 10K race,” – Richard Macati, M.D., Internal Medicine
“Traditionally my family will gather and eat around noon at my parents’ house. A few hours later, we take a family walk for about an hour to burn the extra calories and enjoy the beautiful country scenery.” – Lori, nurse
Breast cancer … it’s a scary thought and all too many women assume that it won’t happen to them. Fact is though, every ten minutes a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer. So, don’t be ignorant, during breast cancer awareness month 2019 go for a medical checkup, it might save your life.
Early signs of breast cancer can be a lump in a breast, a painful breast or armpit, or a discharge from the nipple. Even if none of these symptoms present themselves, a doctor should be visited to be sure. A doctor will most likely perform a manual exam and send you for a mammogram. A mammogram examination is painless and only takes about ten minutes.
If any of these symptoms do present themselves there’s no need to panic. Plenty of time, pain or a lump in a breast can be perfectly harmless. The pain can be a sign of a cyst or the lump can be benign. It’s always better to be sure though.
If you’ve never had a mammogram, make an appointment during breast cancer awareness month 2019. You can take a friend or family member with you and afterward you’ll have peace of mind.
How much do daily habits like diet and exercise affect your risk for cancer? Much more than you might think. Research has shown that poor diet and not being active are 2 key factors that can increase a person’s cancer risk. The good news is that you can do something about this.
Besides quitting smoking, some of the most important things you can do to help reduce your cancer risk are:
- Get to and stay at a healthy weight throughout life.
- Be physically active on a regular basis.
- Make healthy food choices with a focus on plant-based foods.
The evidence for this is strong. The World Cancer Research Fund estimates that about 20% of all cancers diagnosed in the US are related to body fatness, physical inactivity, excess alcohol consumption, and/or poor nutrition, and thus could be prevented.
Control your weight.
Getting to and staying at a healthy weight is important to reduce the risk of cancer and other chronic diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes. Being overweight or obese increases the risk of several cancers, including those of the breast (in women past menopause), colon and rectum, endometrium (the lining of the uterus), esophagus, pancreas, and kidney, among others.
Being overweight can increase cancer risk in many ways. One of the main ways is that excess weight causes the body to produce and circulate more estrogen and insulin, hormones that can stimulate cancer growth.
What’s a healthy weight?
One of the best ways to get an idea if you are at a healthy weight is to check your Body Mass Index (BMI), a score based on the relationship between your height and weight. Use our easy online BMI calculator to find out your score.
To reduce cancer risk, most people need to keep their BMIs below 25. Ask your doctor what your BMI number means and what action (if any) you should take.
If you are trying to control your weight, a good first step is to watch portion sizes, especially of foods high in calories, fat, and added sugars. Also try to limit your intake of high-calorie foods and drinks. Try writing down what and how much you eat and drink for a week, then see where you can cut down on portion sizes, cut back on some not-so-healthy foods and drinks, or both!
For those who are overweight or obese, losing even a small amount of weight has health benefits and is a good place to start.
Be more active.
Watching how much you eat will help you control your weight. The other key is to be more physically active. Being active helps reduce your cancer risk by helping with weight control. It can also help improve your hormone levels and the way your immune system works.
More good news – physical activity helps you reduce your risk of heart disease and diabetes, too! So grab your athletic shoes and head out the door!
The latest recommendations for adults call for at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity each week, or an equivalent combination, preferably spread throughout the week. This is over and above usual daily activities like using the stairs instead of the elevator at your office or doing housework. For kids, the recommendation is at least 60 minutes of moderate or vigorous intensity activity each day, with vigorous intensity activity occurring at least 3 days each week.
Moderate activities are those that make you breathe as hard as you would during a brisk walk. This includes things like walking, biking, even housework and gardening. Vigorous activities make you use large muscle groups and make your heart beat faster, make you breathe faster and deeper, and also make you sweat.
It’s also important to limit sedentary behavior such as sitting, lying down, watching television, or other forms of screen-based entertainment.
Being more physically active than usual, no matter what your level of activity, can have many health benefits.
Eat healthy foods.
Eating well is an important part of improving your health and reducing your cancer risk. Take a good hard look at what you typically eat each day and try these tips to build a healthy diet plan for yourself and your family:
Choose foods and drinks in amounts that help you get to and maintain a healthy weight.
- Read food labels to become more aware of portion sizes and calories. Be aware that “low-fat” or “non-fat” does not necessarily mean “low-calorie.”
- Eat smaller portions when eating high-calorie foods.
- Choose vegetables, whole fruit, legumes such as peas and beans, and other low-calorie foods instead of calorie-dense foods such as French fries, potato and other chips, ice cream, donuts, and other sweets.
- Limit your intake of sugar-sweetened beverages such as soft drinks, sports drinks, and fruit-flavored drinks.
- When you eat away from home, be especially mindful to choose food low in calories, fat, and added sugar, and avoid eating large portion sizes.
Limit how much processed meat and red meat you eat.
- Minimize your intake of processed meats such as bacon, sausage, lunch meats, and hot dogs.
- Choose fish, poultry, or beans instead of red meat (beef, pork, and lamb).
- If you eat red meat, choose lean cuts and eat smaller portions.
- Prepare meat, poultry, and fish by baking, broiling, or poaching rather than by frying or charbroiling.
Eat at least 2½ cups of vegetables and fruits each day.
- Include vegetables and fruits at every meal and snack.
- Eat a variety of vegetables and fruits each day.
- Emphasize whole fruits and vegetables; choose 100% juice if you drink vegetable or fruit juices.
- Limit your use of creamy sauces, dressings, and dips with fruits and vegetables.
Choose whole grains instead of refined grain products.
- Choose whole-grain breads, pasta, and cereals (such as barley and oats) instead of breads, cereals, and pasta made from refined grains, and brown rice instead of white rice.
- Limit your intake of refined carbohydrate foods, including pastries, candy, sugar-sweetened breakfast cereals, and other high-sugar foods.
If you drink alcohol, limit how much
People who drink alcohol should limit their intake to no more than 2 drinks per day for men and 1 drink per day for women. The recommended limit is lower for women because of their smaller body size and slower breakdown of alcohol.
A drink of alcohol is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1½ ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits (hard liquor). In terms of cancer risk, it is the amount of alcohol, not the type of alcoholic drink that is important.
These daily limits do not mean it’s safe to drink larger amounts on fewer days of the week, since this can lead to health, social, and other problems.
Reducing cancer risk in our communities
Adopting a healthier lifestyle is easier for people who live, work, play, or go to school in an environment that supports healthy behaviors. Working together, communities can create the type of environment where healthy choices are easy to make.
We all can be part of these changes: Let’s ask for healthier food choices at our workplaces and schools. For every junk food item in the vending machine, ask for a healthy option, too. Support restaurants that help you to eat well by offering options like smaller portions, lower-calorie items, and whole-grain products. And let’s help make our communities safer and more appealing places to walk, bike, and be active.
The bottom line
Let’s challenge ourselves to lose some extra pounds, increase our physical activity, make healthy food choices, limit alcohol, and look for ways to make our communities healthier places to live, work, and play.