Study: Obesity may overtake smoking as leading cause of cancer

After a study found 13 types of cancer linked to excess body weight, experts say obesity and inactivity may someday be the cause of more cancer-related deaths than smoking. Richard Wender, a physician and chief cancer control officer at the American Cancer Society (ACS), says if current trends continue, smoking won’t be the only unhealthy habit responsible for cancer deaths.

Since the early 1970’s, the obesity rate has tripled to include 36% of adults. Cancer deaths were projected to decrease with a reduction in people smoking. However a new study, released in the New England Journal of Medicine in August 2016, indicated that obesity could offset that progress.
Wender says the decline in smoking “has been somewhat counterbalanced by this steady rise in obesity trends.” Wender asks, “Who would’ve thought we’d ever see the day where what you eat (and) exercise, could account for more cancer deaths than smoking?” Although he admits obesity is not guaranteed to surpass smoking as the leading cancer cause, the possibility is alarming.

Smoking and sun exposure are known cancer causers, but cancer’s relationship to nutrition and exercise isn’t as easy to pinpoint. Rebecca Siegelan, from the ACS, says an overlap in risk factors makes it difficult to identify the actual cause. “While 20% of cancers are caused by poor diet, alcohol consumption, a lack of physical activity and/or excess weight, that can’t be combined with the 30% of cancer deaths caused by cigarette smoking,” says Siegel. “That’s because poor people are more likely to be obese and to smoke than more affluent people.”

Some experts suggest that access to healthy food is the key. A program in Pennsylvania run by Geisinger Health, called Fresh Food Pharmacy, provides healthy groceries to low income patients, described as some of the “least-healthy” in the program. In about 65 patients, participants have lost weight, reduced their medications and reduced their blood sugar rate by at least three points. 

Wender says that unhealthy choices can often be correlated to where a person grew up and where they live. He says people who make unhealthy choices often don’t have access to cancer screenings and tend to use tobacco products.

Experts also note that having no access to transportation in order to see a specialist or just see a doctor when they’re ill often affects those living at or near the poverty line most. Some groups are working on ways to bring providers to patients and expand on ride-sharing services. One such program was recently announced by Blue Cross and Blue Shield and Lyft, who have joined up to provide rides in areas they deem “transportation deserts.”

Wender says healthy habits are key for everyone wishing to avoid the negative impacts of obesity. He suggests a lifestyle that includes diet and exercise, regular cancer screenings and getting vaccinated against HPV and Hepatitis B may reduce cancer deaths by 50%.

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