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Obesity: A Growing Burden for Cancer Survivors


Patients with a history of cancer were more likely to suffer from obesity than the general population. This incidence was even greater in patients who were survivors of colorectal and breast cancers.

Patients with a history of cancer were more likely to suffer from obesity than the general population, according to new research studying the incidence of obesity in cancer survivors. This incidence was even greater in patients who were survivors of colorectal and breast cancers.

The study from Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health was designed to compare rates of obesity among cancer survivors and adults without a history. By examining the trend in obesity prevalence among cancer survivors in United States and comparing the trends with those of adults without a history of cancer, the study is first of its kind. The findings are published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Prevalence of Obesity for Cancer Survivors

The researchers used a population-based nationally representative sample of 538,969 non-institutionalized US adults with or without a history of cancer. All participants were between the ages of 18 and 85 years. All participants had also participated in annual cross-sectional National Health Interview Surveys from 1997 to 2014.

For standardization purposes, obesity was defined as body mass index ≥ 30 kg/m2 for non-Asians and body mass index ≥ 27.5 kg/m2 for Asians.

The key results were as follows:

  • A total of 32,447 cancer survivors were identified.
  • The most common cancer diagnoses were breast cancer (6948 patients), prostate cancer (3984 patients), and colorectal cancer (2546 patients).
  • During the study period, the prevalence of obesity increased for both cancer survivors as well as adults without a history of cancer. (From 22.4% to 31.7% in cancer survivors and from 20.9% to 29.5% in adults without a history of cancer.)
  • However, the annual increase in obesity prevalence was higher in adults with a history of cancer as compared to those without a history.
  • Populations with the highest rates of increasing obesity were colorectal cancer survivors followed by breast cancer survivors.
  • African American survivors of all 3 cancers were particularly affected.

Obesity a Growing Health Burden

“Our study identified characteristics of cancer survivors at the highest risk of obesity, which are important patient populations in which oncology care providers should focus their efforts,” said Heather Greenlee, ND, PhD, assistant professor of Epidemiology at the Mailman School, and lead researcher.

Patients with a history of cancer may have battled their biggest health issue but often they are left with the side-effects of the illness. The study highlights the strong link between the incidence of obesity and history of cancer. If targeted properly, these patients can be selectively and pro-actively treated for weight management and physical training in order to prevent the increasing obesity trends in cancer survivors.

“These results suggest that obesity is a growing public health burden for cancer survivors, which requires targeted interventions including weight management efforts to stave off the increasing obesity trends we are seeing in cancer survivors,” noted Greenlee.

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