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Women at Risk of Breast Cancer May Want to Consider This Unusual Choice of Surgery

Tim Boyer's picture
Weight loss surgery beats dieting over cancer prevention

Some women at risk of breast cancer opt to have a preventive mastectomy to protect their health. However, data from a new study may indicate that rather than having their breasts surgically removed, some women may benefit from a much less radical—and popular―type of surgery that could protect them from cancer as well.


While much has been said about the importance of losing weight to reverse metabolic disease and other obesity-related medical conditions, another benefit to losing weight is to potentially lower your risk of developing cancer. Obesity is recognized as a significant risk factor for several types of breast cancer, including basal-like breast cancer subtype. Currently, researchers are working toward understanding this association between obesity and breast tumor growth.

According to news release from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, researchers studying the link between obesity and cancer at the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center recently reported that weight loss surgery is more effective than a low-fat diet at reversing the cancer-promoting effects of chronic obesity in mouse models of mammary gland cancer.

“Our basic finding was that surgical weight loss in obese mice was able to inhibit mammary tumor growth in a mouse model of basal-like breast cancer, while weight loss induced by a low fat, low calorie diet was not,” said Emily Rossi, the paper’s first author whose research will be presented April 18 at the 2016 American Association of Cancer Research Annual Meeting in New Orleans.

“Data from human studies has suggested that there is something mechanistically different about bariatric surgery, relative to diet-induced weight loss, that makes the surgery more effective at preventing or controlling breast cancer,” states Stephen Hursting, PhD, MPH, a professor of nutrition at UNC and co-author of the study. “Now that we have (for the first time) replicated this surgery versus diet effect in an experimental model of breast cancer, we have the opportunity to determine the molecular and metabolic factors that are responsible for the protective effects of the surgery.”

In the study, mice were either fed a low-fat diet or an obesity-promoting high-fat diet for 15 weeks, after which a randomly selected subset of the obese mice were given a sleeve gastrectomy to reverse their weight gain while the remaining obese mice were placed on a low-fat diet to lose weight.

What the researchers found was that the mice that were obese and received bariatric surgery to induce weight loss were no more prone to developing cancer than control mice that were fed the low-fat diet initially in the study. However, of those obese mice that were later placed on a low-fat diet rather than weight loss surgery, they had a higher incidence of developing cancer equal to that of obese mice that did not receive any weight loss measures.

Furthermore, the researchers found that of the obese mice given weight loss surgery, that they had lower levels of insulin and inflammatory proteins, which suggests that the surgery reduced obesity-linked increases in insulin, inflammation and breast cancer growth.

According to the news release, due to the logistics and costs of bariatric surgery, the researchers are not recommending it for everyone who is obese.

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“One consequence of the obesity epidemic in the United States and many other countries is increasing rates of obesity-related cancer,” Hursting said. “However, we are not going to solve this growing problem through bariatric surgery, which, despite being effective, is too expensive and too difficult to be done on everyone who is obese. Our goal is to understand what the surgery is doing metabolically to slow tumors, and replicate those protective effects through combinations of diet, exercise and possibly drugs that target some of the same pathways as the bariatric surgery.”

However, if weight loss surgery is truly effective toward cancer prevention, what if weight loss surgery were found to help obese women who are at a higher risk of developing breast cancer than women who are obese, but not otherwise at an increased risk? Would not weight loss surgery be preferential to preventive mastectomy in this population of women?! Unfortunately, this point was not addressed in the news release, but may be something to discuss with your physician and an oncologist during your next check-up.

For some informative articles about the association between obesity and cancer, here are some select articles for your consideration:

Why Obesity Increases Risk of Breast Cancer in Certain Women

Breast Cancer Lethal for Overweight, Obese Women

Fat Mass and Obesity Gene Connected to Breast Cancer

Breast Cancer Survivors with Extra Pounds at Greater Risk for Recurrence

Reference: UNC School of Medicine “Weight Loss Surgery Beats Diet at Inhibiting Breast Cancer, Study Finds

Modified images courtesy of Pixabay