From the Journals

Sharp climb in weight gain after breast cancer diagnosis


Significant weight gain after a diagnosis of breast cancer may be a bigger problem than previously thought, and clinicians need to do more to help patients manage it, say the authors of a national survey conducted in Australia.

An obese woman weighs herself on a scale at home. Monkeybusinessimages/Thinkstock

“We found that two-thirds of our respondents were currently overweight or obese,” report Carolyn Ee, MBBS, PhD, of the NICM Health Research Institute, Western Sydney University, Penrith, New South Wales, and colleagues.

“Because weight gain after breast cancer may lead to poorer outcomes, efforts to prevent and manage weight gain must be prioritized and accelerated particularly in the first year after diagnosis,” they comment.

Their article was published online February 20 in BMC Cancer.

The 60-item anonymous online survey was sent to 1835 members of the Breast Cancer Network Australia Review and Survey Group.

Although the response rate for the online survey was only 15%, most women reported a “high” level of concern about weight gain – and with good reason. The results showed that 64% of women gained an average of 9 kg (20 lb), and 17% gained >20 kg (44 lb).

In the 2-year period following a breast cancer diagnosis, the rate of overweight and obesity increased from 48% to 67%. The rate of obesity alone almost doubled, from 17% to 32%.

Overweight and obesity are strongly implicated in the development of breast cancer, the authors note. Weight gain after diagnosis is associated with morbidity and all-cause mortality and may increase the risk for breast cancer recurrence by 30% to 40%.

The survey, which also collected data from 26 women who were participants in online women’s health and breast cancer support groups, did not include information on quality of life and levels of distress. “Additional research in this area appears to be warranted,” the study authors suggest.

In a press statement, Ee noted that 77% of women reported that weight gain had occurred in the 12- to 18-month period after diagnosis. This could provide a “window of opportunity” for intervention, she said.

“Timing may be the key in helping women to manage weight after a diagnosis of breast cancer,” she added. “Cancer services and general practitioners play an important role in having early conversations with women and referring them to a team of qualified healthcare professionals such as dieticians and exercise physiologists with experience in cancer.”

Coauthor John Boyages, MBBS, PhD, a radiation oncologist at the Icon Cancer Center, Sydney Adventist Hospital, Wahroonga, emphasized that all women should be prescribed exercise after being diagnosed with breast cancer. “Prescribing a healthy lifestyle is just as important as prescribing tablets,” he said.

“As doctors, we really need to actively think about weight, nutrition, and exercise and advise about possible interventions. [Among patients with breast cancer,] weight gain adds to self-esteem problems, increases the risk of heart disease and other cancers, and several reports suggest it may affect prognosis and also increases the risk of lymphedema,” he added

“More effort needs to be geared to treating the whole body, as we know obesity is a risk factor for poorer outcomes when dealing with breast cancer,” commented Stephanie Bernik, MD, chief of breast service at Mount Sinai West and associate professor of surgery at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. She was not involved in the study and was approached for comment.

Berwick also agreed that meeting with a nutritionist or receiving weight loss support is helpful for patients with cancer, but she added that not all cancer centers have the resources to provide these services.


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