Obesity and cancer risk: Weight loss surgery may help

Weight loss surgery has many health benefits for the obese, including lowering your risk of diabetes and heart disease. But many don’t realize lowering cancer risk is another reason to consider the procedure.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity is linked to 40 percent of all cancers diagnosed in the U.S., including:

  • Breast (in women past menopause)
  • Colorectal
  • Endometrial (lining of the uterus)
  • Esophageal
  • Gallbladder
  • Kidney
  • Liver
  • Meningioma
  • Multiple myeloma
  • Ovarian
  • Pancreatic
  • Stomach
  • Thyroid
  • Uterine

An important distinction the National Cancer Institute (NCI) makes is that obese people who have weight loss surgery appear to have lower risks of obesity-related cancers than obese people who don’t have the operation. NCI bases this off of a 2013 study on weight loss surgery, but more research continues to emerge.

Just this fall the Annals of Surgery published a study on bariatric surgery and cancer risk. Researchers followed 89,000 severely obese patients, including about 22,000 who had weight loss surgery, for an average follow-up of three and a half years.

The patients who had weight loss surgery were 33 percent less likely to develop any cancer during the study, which ran from 2005 through 2014. When they looked specifically at obesity-related cancers, the numbers increased. Patients who had weight loss surgery were 41 percent less likely to develop obesity-related cancers, and 40 percent less likely to be diagnosed with tumors linked to obesity.

There are a few types of weight loss surgery. The majority of the patients in this study had gastric bypass surgery in which a small stomach pouch is created and the small intestines are rerouted. Twenty-seven percent of people in the study had sleeve gastrectomy in which a portion of your stomach is removed.

In this particular study, more than 80 percent of the participants were women. It’s important to note that researchers found a link between bariatric surgery and cancer risk in women, not men.

Since many cancers take years to develop, the researchers noted it’s possible their research underestimates the impact of weight loss surgery on cancer risk.

Research will continue, and we’ll get a better understanding of the link between obesity, weight loss and cancer risk. Until then, the reality is that there are nearly 15 million adults in the U.S. who are severely obese. Cancer prevention is just one of the many reasons to consider bariatric surgery.

To learn more about weight loss surgery, attend a free seminar at AAMC. To learn more or register, visit askAAMC.org/WeightLoss.

 Alex_Gandsas_MDAlex Gandsas, MD, is a bariatric surgeon at the AAMC Weight Loss and Metabolic Surgery Program. To reach his practice, call 443-924-2900.

Originally published Jan. 22, 2018. Last updated Feb. 25, 2019.

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