Obesity and Cancer Risk: Our Expert Weighs In

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By Jennifer Montgomery, MD Anderson Staff Writer

A new report shows that cancer death rates are still on the decline in the United States, but increasing obesity remains a concern.

The Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer, released March 28, notes that for more than three decades, too much weight, too little exercise and unhealthy eating habits have been second only to tobacco as preventable causes of disease and death.

Since the 1960s, the report says, tobacco use has declined by one-third, but obesity rates have doubled. According to the report, 2 in 3 adults and 1 in 3 kids are overweight or obese, which places them at risk for not only heart disease and diabetes, but also cancer. After reviewing more than 7,000 studies, the report's researchers have identified six cancers associated with being overweight or obese:

  • Esophageal adenocarcinoma
  • Colon and rectal cancer
  • Kidney cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Endometrial cancer
  • Breast cancer among postmenopausal women
This review also finds convincing evidence of an association between lack of sufficient physical activity and increased risk of colon cancer. A probable association is cited for post-menopausal breast and endometrial cancers.The report notes that less than half of adults get enough physical activity. Youths get even less.

Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D., professor in the Department of General Oncology and director of MD Anderson's Integrative Medicine Program, shares his reaction to the annual cancer report, as well as suggestions for how people can take action now to reduce obesity and prevent cancer.

The Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer looks at U.S. cancer numbers from 1975 and 2008. It's a collaboration of researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries, the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society.

Additional highlights from the report:

  • Death rates from all cancers combined for men, women and children continued to decline in the United States between 2004 and 2008.
  • New cancer diagnoses among men fell an average of 0.6% per year over the same period. 
  • New cancer diagnoses among women declined 0.5% per year from 1998 through 2006, but rates leveled off from 2006 through 2008.
  • For the second consecutive year, mortality rates for lung cancer have decreased among women. Lung cancer death rates in men have been decreasing since the early 1990s.
  • Breast cancer incidence rates among women declined from 1999 through 2004 and plateaued from 2004 through 2008.
  • Colorectal cancer incidence rates decreased among men and women from 1999 through 2008.
  • Incidence rates of some cancers, including pancreas, kidney, thyroid, liver and melanoma, increased from 1999 through 2008.
  • Among racial and ethnic groups, the highest cancer incidence rates between 2004 and 2008 were among black men and white women. Cancer death rates from 2004 through 2008 were highest among black men and black women, but these groups showed the largest declines between 1999 and 2008, compared with other racial groups.
  • Among children age 19 or younger, cancer incidence rates increased 0.6% per year from 2004 through 2008, while death rates decreased 1.3% per year during the same period.

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