Can weight loss reduce your risk of cancer?

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Research has shown a clear correlation between obesity and cancer risk

Before 2019, many studies focused on understanding the relationship between obesity and cancer.

These studies revealed a link between obesity and an increased risk of:

  • Colorectal cancer
  • Postmenopausal breast cancer
  • Endometrial cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer

While the research showed the cancer risk is higher in patients with obesity than in patients within a normal weight range, they did not study whether significant weight loss, specifically via bariatric surgery, reduced cancer risk. That is, until now.

New studies show weight-loss surgery can help reduce cancer risk

Recent studies show that among adults with obesity, weight loss achieved with bariatric surgery was associated with a 32% lower risk of developing certain cancers and a 48% lower risk of cancer-related death compared with adults who did not have the surgery.

These findings are significant for a variety of reasons. While medical weight-loss methods can undoubtedly make a difference in people with chronic conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure or heart problems, only bariatric surgery has been shown to help people lose enough weight to significantly reduce the risk of cancer.

Most nonsurgical, medical weight-loss programs help people lose between 5% and 10% of their body weight. Bariatric surgery, on average, helps people lose between 20% and 35% of their body weight, making a more significant impact overall.

Bariatric surgery not only tends to help people lose more weight, but the effects also tend to be more durable and long-lasting. The most recent studies show:

  • 2.9% of the patients who have had bariatric surgery were diagnosed with cancer at the 10-year mark compared with 4.9% of people who did not have bariatric surgery at ten years
  • At 10 years, the chances of dying from cancer were only 0.8% in those having bariatric surgery but rose to 1.4% of patients who did not have surgery

"This latest study indicates that if you've had bariatric surgery, you are less likely to get obesity-related cancers," says Corrigan McBride, MD, medical director of Bariatric Services. "Another interesting finding is that these patients' risk of dying from cancer is nearly cut in half at 10 years. This study shows that cancer risk is modifiable through significant weight loss, and bariatric surgery can help."

Why does substantial weight loss reduce cancer risk?

More research is needed to fully understand the why behind the correlation. Experts believe it may have something to do with the idea that obesity by itself is considered a pro-inflammatory state.

"Body fat makes chemicals that travel all over the body and impact our health in numerous ways," says Dr. McBride. "The heavier we are, the more likely we are to have the hormones that tell us we're hungry or suppress the hormones that tell us when we're full. Patients with obesity tend to have higher levels of inflammation markers than those in a normal weight range. It's believed that this chronic inflammatory state can contribute to certain cancer risks."

Reducing the risk of cancer isn't the only reason to treat obesity
People often associate obesity with reducing symptoms of chronic conditions like diabetes or heart disease. Still, it's also about your body's ability to react to viruses and infections.

"Obesity is not just a problem because it's obesity – it's more than that," says Dr. McBride. "Obesity in of itself is a disease that needs treatment. If we can treat obesity instead of only treating the conditions that result from obesity, we reduce greater risks down the road."

Reducing your cancer risk with bariatric surgery

The Nebraska Medicine Bariatrics Center offers the region's most comprehensive weight management program, offering surgical and medical weight loss treatment options for obesity.

“The goal of the Bariatrics Center is to help patients deal with obesity and all the problems that come from obesity,” says Dr. McBride. “What these newer studies show us is that reducing the risk of getting certain cancers and lowering the risk of dying from them is possible with the help of bariatric surgery.”

If you qualify as a candidate for bariatric surgery, your options may include:

  • Roux-en-Y gastric bypass: A mainstay for the last 18 to 20 years
  • Laparoscopic gastric sleeve (vertical sleeve gastrectomy): The number one operation performed in the U.S. (with gastric bypass being second)
  • SADI-S (single anastomosis duodeno–ileal bypass with sleeve gastrectomy): A more recent approach to weight-loss surgery
  • Weight-loss revision surgery

"While there are many variables, the ideal candidate is at a point in their life where they are ready to make real changes to lose weight and improve their health," says Dr. McBride. "The surgery cannot do all the work. When I meet with patients, I discuss the pros and cons of all their weight-loss options to help them understand how they can meet their goals and navigate their weight-loss surgery."  

The weight-loss surgery journey: What to expect

When you are ready to have a conversation and reach out via referral or by calling the Bariatrics Center, we first educate you with basic information about your options by phone and video.

On your first visit
Plan about 45 minutes to an hour for your first visit. The discussion will include your:

  • Current health and medical history
  • Goals for weight loss
  • Surgical options
  • Surgical pros and cons
  • More specific bariatric education

After your first visit:
To increase weight-loss success in the long term, all bariatric surgery candidates will work with:

  • A bariatric dietitian before and after surgery
  • A psychologist who works with the bariatric team
  • Additional specialists as needed, such as an endocrinologist, sleep specialist or getting set up with a smoking cessation program

Insurance approval: The next step
The Bariatric Center's insurance coordinator will help you navigate the insurance approval process. On average, the preoperative visits and the insurance approval can take six to nine months. Depending on the circumstances, to get the best results, the process may take longer to optimize your health before surgery.

The insurance process helps to determine:

  • If you have coverage and what kind of bariatric surgery may be covered
  • If your insurance company has pre-approval requirements
  • The potential timing of approval
  • Additional requirements may appear once we submit a specific procedure to your insurance company

Once approved, the bariatrics team will prepare you with what to expect before, during and after surgery.

Find out how the Bariatrics Center can help you explore your weight-loss options to reduce your cancer risk. Begin your weight-loss journey in five easy steps, or call 402.559.9500 to get started.