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Losing Weight May Help Keep Breast Cancer From Returning

Being overweight puts women at greater risk for breast cancer. It also increases the chance the cancer will come back. New research shows shedding extra pounds can help protect women under 60 from a cancer recurrence.

"I had never had a mammogram. And I found a lump," said San Antonian Gina Capparelli. At age 50, she was stunned by a breast cancer diagnosis that led to surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

  

"It’s hard," she described. "Physical. Mental. Spiritually. Everything. It’s a life-changing experience."

  

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Breast cancer patient Gina Capparelli talks with her medical oncologist Virginia Kakalmani, MD, at the UT Health San Antonio Cancer Center.

  

Capparelli’s oncologist, Virginia Kaklamani, MD, of UT Health San Antonio Cancer Center, is a big advocate of controlling weight to stave off the return of breast cancer.

"Lifestyle may actually help treat breast cancer as successfully as our chemotherapy does," she stated.

Kaklamani was part of a study published in the journal Cancer that showed women under 60 diagnosed with breast cancer can increase their chance of survival by losing weight.

She says fat contains growth factors and hormones that can fuel cancer cells. "We store estrogen in our fat," the doctor explained. "So the more fat we have, the more estrogen we have and the more estrogen we have, we increase our risk of breast cancer coming back."

Women often gain weight during cancer treatment. They’re sometimes prescribed steroids. Maybe they stop exercising. Some get depressed and turn to food for comfort.

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Virginia Kaklamani, MD, said some women gain weight during breast cancer treatment due to the use of steroids, lack of exercise, and depression that leads to eating as a source of comfort.

  

However, many physicians believe cancer therapy isn’t the time to stop healthy habits. "I think it’s extremely important. Just because you’re on chemotherapy doesn’t really mean that the rest of your life needs to be on hold,"  Kaklamani said.

Patients like Capparelli says it’s difficult to live life as usual. "It’s scary. It’s a very scary disease," she said. "I live every day in fear that that’s coming back."

But she’s taken her doctor’s advice. "I started walking. Every day I walk. I have to fight the fight," she added.

Kakalmani acknowledges losing weight is not an easy task for most people. "It’s a very hard conversation. What I typically say is, ‘listen if it was easy, we would all be a size two.’

Hard, maybe. But Kaklamani believes breast cancer survivors who potentially have decades left to live will do hard things to decrease the risk of dying from the disease.