Dr. Shannon Schmidt, MD

Weight loss after 50 goes a long way in lowering breast cancer risk

New research suggests postmenopausal woman can possibly reverse the trajectory of breast cancer risk by shedding several pounds and maintaining weight loss.

“The key is keeping off the weight,” said Shannon Schmidt, MD, oncology/hematology specialist with ThedaCare Cancer Care. “That’s what makes this study different from the others. When women sustained the weight loss, they were able to reverse the impact of breast cancer – a 13 percent risk reduction if they lost as little as four-and-a-half pounds. That is a manageable goal for women. And if they maintained a 20-pound loss, there was a 25 percent risk reduction. That is a huge impact on women’s health.”

Doctors have always known middle-aged women with low weight have a lower risk of breast cancer, and this latest study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (JNCI) indicates for the first time that permanent weight loss can significantly reduce a woman’s chances of being diagnosed with the disease.

“This is very exciting research,” Dr. Shannon added. “This study affirms what we know and clarifies that just a small amount of sustainable weight loss, can make a difference. It’s empowering to women to know that they can be in control of their health, they can modify their lifestyle to reverse this disease.”

The study examined 180,000 women older than age 50 who were tracked for a decade, looking at breast cancer diagnosis and weight loss during that time period. The study authors concluded: “Breast cancer prevention may be a strong weight loss motivator for the two-thirds of American women who are overweight or obese.”

Why does weight loss make such a difference in cancer prevention? It is long been know that fat cells convert to the hormone estrogen and cancer feeds on estrogen. Dr. Schmidt explained that getting rid of fat is important in reducing cancer risk.

“Weight loss can be challenging for women, especially after age 50,” she said. “If women find an eating plan and exercise routine they can sustain, it will have a lasting effect. Every woman has a different metabolism, so it might be harder for one woman compared to another to lose weight. It’s about managing calories-in/calories-out and eating healthy foods.

 

She also stressed the importance of exercising at least five days a week. “Exercise is underappreciated,” she said. “It is so important to an overall healthy life because women will burn extra calories consumed with exercise as well as build muscle, which fights fat. Regular exercise really gives you the edge in keeping the weight off. You really can’t lose weight with diet alone.”

Breast cancer is the second most diagnosed and deadliest cancer among American women, next to skin cancer. About 12 percent of women are at risk of developing breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society, and the organization anticipates nearly 270,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer this year.

With so much hope being realized in this area of study, research continues with weight loss and cancer. ThedaCare is part of national, ongoing research called Breast Cancer Weight Loss Study, or B-WEL, enrolling breast cancer survivors who are overweight. The study aims to determine if weight loss might prevent breast cancer from recurring, helping to show if weight loss programs should be a part of treatment plans.

“We anticipate this research will continue to confirm the advantages of weight loss for breast cancer patients,” said Dr. Schmidt. “We also see women attaining other health benefits with weight loss, such as reducing their risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and more.”