Weight Loss And Breast Cancer Recurrence: Small Steps Can Make A Big Difference

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Breast cancer survival rates are increasing. Medical advances, early detection, and increased awareness mean that more women (and men!) are surviving breast cancer. As of 2016, the 5-year survival rate for breast cancer patients was 91%. It’s wonderful that breast cancer survival rates are increasing, but for those who have lost loved ones, 91% is still much too small of a number. For those who do make it through breast cancer, the focus shifts to limiting the risk of recurrence.

It doesn’t seem right that cancer, once beaten, might return. But it’s estimated that 30% of people diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer will develop metastatic cancer later on. While there is no way to guarantee that cancer will not return in some form, there are strategies for reducing your risk.

Unfortunately, the best ways of reducing risk of cancer recurrence are also the hardest: losing weight and exercising.

In a University of California study, fat loss was found to be one of the best methods for decreasing the chance of facing cancer a second time. Female breast cancer survivors who perform moderate weekly exercise have a significantly reduced rate of recurrence. A consistent exercise routine can help reduce recurrence risk by 20% to 80%. That’s huge. And losing even a small amount of weight can make a difference in recurrence risk—not to mention your overall health. But even losing a small amount can be a big challenge.

What We Know For Sure

Weight loss is hard. It’s really, really hard. It’s easy to throw statistics around and talk about what we should do, but it’s harder to make a life-long change. And for cancer patients, weight loss may be even harder.

Steroid treatment often leads to weight gain, and even if steroids are discontinued, the extra weight is hard to lose. Chemotherapy can cause women to start menopause early, and that can lead to weight gain. Hormone therapy can lead to weight gain, because decreased hormone levels, while helpful for cancer treatment, can lower metabolism, increase fat, and decrease muscle.

Even if treatment itself doesn’t cause weight gain, the stress and schedule of treatment and disease can lead to extra pounds. Keep in mind that during treatment, weight loss will likely not be your goal, as your body needs all its energy focused on fighting cancer. When treatment is over, it’s time to decide how you’ll live your best, healthiest life and if weight loss and/or exercise should be a part of that.

Reasons to get and stay healthy after cancer treatment

Tim Byers, M.D., M.P.D, authored a study that followed early-stage breast cancer survivors for 2 years. The study found that, given the proper information and motivation, breast cancer survivors can lose weight. Not surprisingly, the study participants who received more support lost more weight than the group that received only information, but both groups were successful in their efforts. Dr. Byers said, “We don’t need to focus on getting to the ‘ideal’ body type, whatever that may be. If we can prove that modest weight loss improves the chance of better outcomes after breast cancer, we need to encourage and support that.”

Fat cells make estrogen, and estrogen can cause hormone-receptor-positive cancer cells to grow. Increased fat cells mean increased estrogen and increased risk. Extra fat cells can also cause low-level chronic inflammation, and this inflammation has been linked to increased recurrence risk. This is great motivation for getting extra fat cells off our bodies, but it’s not the only reason to get moving.

Exercise relieves stress and boosts your mood. Exercising is an excellent confidence builder (apart from weight loss), and it’s often a great way to build a social support group. For tips on how to best stay active after cancer treatment, click here.

But we already know that exercising and maintaining a healthy weight are important, right? The problem is that it’s not as simple as walking a mile and waiting for the extra pounds to come off. Long-term, healthy weight loss is slow, steady, and tough. But it can be done, and cancer survivors already have a double-dose of toughness.

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Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.
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