Obesity and Cancer: What To Know About the Connection

Date: Apr 5, 2023

It’s scary to hear you might have an increased risk of cancer. The good news is that researchers like Curtis Henry, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine, investigate the reasons. Their findings can help people reduce cancer risk and show doctors how to treat it more effectively.

Your immune system prevents you from getting sick and protects your healthy cells. And Dr. Henry researches immunology as a member of the Cancer Immunology Research Program at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University. 

Dr. Henry studies how lifestyle factors, including obesity, affect your body’s immune system. He knew he wanted to be a scientist at age five when he got his first microscope, and his dedication to immunology stems from a personal place. “When I was a child, one of my cousins was diagnosed with leukemia. It shook me to my core,” he says. “As I got older, I promised him I would start my research in leukemia if ever afforded an opportunity.”

His findings now help us understand how obesity affects cancer risk and outcomes – and what you can do about it. 

Everyone Has the Potential To Develop Cancer

Anyone can get cancer. “Everyone at some point in their life will acquire a mutation in a gene that could cause cancer,” says Dr. Henry. “But if your tissue and immune cells are healthy, you can keep these mutated cells under control and prevent them from taking hold.” 

Think of the body like a crowded city. With a limited number of apartments, every cell competes for space. So, if a cell becomes malignant or cancerous, your healthy tissue wants to kick it out – it doesn’t want a troublesome neighbor. But if the immune system doesn’t work correctly, those bad cells can stay and may eventually cause cancer. 

Inflammation, Obesity and Cancer

To fight off cancer cells, you need a healthy immune system. One of the biggest threats to a healthy immune system is chronic (long-term) inflammation.

If you have chronic inflammation, your immune cells are always on high alert. This constant fight makes them tired and not work as well. Dr. Henry compares it to fighting two battles at once. Your immune system already has to “fight” constantly because of inflammation. With your forces divided, it’s easier for disease to take hold. 

Here’s where the connection between obesity and cancer comes in. “As we gain weight, we have more inflammation,” he says. Fat cells regularly secrete inflammatory cytokines (a type of protein) that make us more susceptible to disease. This reaction also makes diseases harder to treat. Fat cells can soak up drugs so they can’t reach their target. Because of this, drugs like chemotherapy have a more challenging time targeting cancer cells. 

So, if a person has obesity, they also have an increased risk of cancer, which may be harder to treat. 

Ways To Improve Your Immune System

Good news: You can improve your immune system. While weight loss can help, it’s not the only thing that matters. These tips can help you see improvements to your immune system even if your weight stays the same! 

Dr. Henry says you can take these steps to reduce inflammation and support your immune system: 

  • Exercise and regularly move — Fat cells change when you exercise. They alter their behavior and the messages they send to the rest of the body. So even if you don’t lose weight, your body gets healthier. “Many studies show when you exercise, you get a boost of anti-inflammatory responses,” he says. It’s worth it to begin an exercise routine
  • Eat a balanced diet that’s doable — “Extremes are never good in life or diets,” says Dr. Henry. Make healthy eating choices you can stick with and even enjoy. If you’re undergoing cancer treatment, read about ways to improve your diet
  • Gradually lose weight — Your body experiences stress when you lose weight. Extreme weight loss too quickly causes more stress, which increases inflammation. Plus, if you underfeed yourself, you also underfeed your immune system. Your body needs nutrients to fight off disease.
  • Meditate your way — Studies show meditation reduces inflammation. But if traditional meditation isn’t your thing, Dr. Henry says some people get the same results when they pet their dog, pray or talk with a friend. 
  • Reduce and manage stress — Look at the total stress in your life. Maybe you already exercise and eat well. But your immune system isn’t rested if you’re stressed all day at work or when you get home. 
  • Take vacations and breaks from work — “Vacations are important,” says Dr. Henry. To fully rest our bodies and minds, we need a break from what causes stress in our lives.

How We Address Health Equity in Obesity and Cancer Care

Dr. Henry recognizes that certain groups of people have higher rates of obesity and cancer and higher mortality rates. These groups include people of color and people over age 65. 

“I see disparities in my community. And my community is your community,” he says. “If we want to help Americans live healthy lives, we must help everyone.” This attitude shows up in his approach to research. “I can be very intentional about the groups I address, the questions I ask.” 

For example, almost 83% of clinical trial participants in the U.S. are White. But at Winship Cancer Institute, 30% of our clinical research participants are Black, matching the percentage of our patient population who are Black. To improve participation in trials of patients from historically underrepresented groups, Winship has implemented and evaluated key interventions that have led to increased awareness and access to Winship clinical trials in the community. Learn more about how Winship works to bridge the health equity gap

Individualized Care at Winship Cancer Institute

At Emory Healthcare, Dr. Henry’s research findings go beyond the experimental and into patient care. “My philosophy is bedside to bench and back to the bedside,” he says. “We do our best to start and end with the patient to ensure our solutions have a useful application.”

His primary goal is to understand why cancers are more aggressive in patients with comorbidities (like obesity). Findings from his team then help physicians at Winship Cancer Institute design more successful therapies for those groups of people.

Find a Specialist in Your Cancer

Talk to your health care provider if you’re concerned about how your weight could affect your overall health, cancer risk or cancer treatment. This specialist could be a primary care provider or your oncologist if you’ve been diagnosed with cancer. 

Ask your provider questions like: 

  • What screenings or tests for cancer should I get? 
  • How do my health conditions impact my risk of cancer? 
  • How do you account for my health conditions in my treatment plan? 
  • How do my health conditions impact the effectiveness of my cancer treatments? My body’s responses to treatment? My chances of having a negative reaction to treatment? 
  • What can I do to increase my chances of successful cancer treatment? 
  • Are there any clinical trials or drugs with good results for people with my health conditions? 
  • What can I do in the recovery phase? How can I boost my immune system after treatment? 

If you’re diagnosed with cancer, Winship Cancer Institute has physicians specializing in your type of cancer. You’ll also benefit from our forward-thinking research and treatment plans. 

Learn more about Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University providers, appointments and clinical trials.  

About Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University

Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University is Georgia’s only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, a prestigious distinction given to the top 3% of cancer centers nationwide for conducting cancer research and providing training that is transforming cancer care, prevention, detection and survivorship. Winship discovers, develops, delivers and teaches some of the world’s most effective ways to prevent, detect, diagnose and treat each patient’s unique cancer. Cancer care at Winship includes specialists with deep expertise and experience in cancer; multidisciplinary evaluation, treatment planning and care coordination that caters to each patient’s individual needs; therapies supported by the latest advances in cancer research; and comprehensive clinical trials and support services.

Schedule your appointment today.

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