Healthy Weight Is Important for Cancer Survivorship

Person excited about reading their weight on a scale

A healthy body weight is not just about your physical appearance; it is a general reflection of your overall health.

Obesity is a prevalent problem in the United States. Nearly 69% of adults and 32% of children in the United States are considered overweight or obese, according to data from 2009-2010. Obesity is linked to increased risk for diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease — and cancer.

“Being overweight or obese is a scientifically proven risk factor for developing several specific cancer types,” says Linda Leising, Senior Clinical Dietitian at Roswell Park. These cancers include liver, ovarian, endometrial, thyroid, breast, gastric cardia (upper stomach), esophageal adenocarcinoma, pancreas, colorectal, kidney, gallbladder, meningioma, and multiple myeloma.

Few people realize, however, that a significant amount of this risk is within their control. “Lifestyle factors such as your food choices and your physical activity have a great impact on cancer risk,” says Leising. “Many people worry about factors they have no control over, like their genes, or those lacking a clear, scientifically proven link to cancer, like food additives.” Instead, people should focus on eating a healthy, plant-based diet, avoiding alcohol, abstaining from smoking, and exercising regularly.

What is a healthy weight?

Weight for an adult is often assessed with a tool known as the body mass index (BMI). This is calculated by dividing a person’s weight (in kilograms) by their height (in meters squared). The result gives you a general idea of your body composition.

BMI BMI Category
Less than 18.5 underweight
18.5 to 24.9 normal
25 to 29.9 overweight
30 to 39.9 obese
40 and above morbidly obese

Your BMI is not the only thing that’s important in terms of assessing your individual nutrition and health status, but it’s a good place to start.

What does this mean for people with cancer?

When a person who is underweight, overweight or obese develops cancer, it can have a significant impact on their treatment plan. The presence of these BMI factors can indicate an increased likelihood of the presence of other health conditions, and may indicate greater difficulty tolerating and recovering from treatments for their cancer, such as surgery, chemotherapy or radiation.

All Roswell Park patients are screened for nutrition risk during their first visit. Clinical teams often ask questions that help assess a patient's nutritional status, such as what types of food they eat, whether they cook at home, if they have experienced a recent weight loss and how they are tolerating food. Patients at Roswell Park have access to reliable nutrition information and guidance in nutrition pamphlets available in the outpatient centers and inpatient units and in The Resource Center for Patients & Families. Intervention and additional support by a team of dietitians is also available.

“A significant number of patients have periods during treatment when eating is difficult, and we are often asked to assess their nutrition status and help them overcome these barriers,” Leising says. “We can offer strategies to improve their nutrient intake as well as their tolerance and enjoyment of food.”

For cancer survivors, maintaining a healthy weight is an important part of ongoing wellness. “Obesity is associated with greater risk for cancer recurrence and decreased survival rates,” says Leising. “We stress the importance of achieving and maintaining a healthy weight by eating healthy foods and getting regular exercise as recommended by your physician.”

For more information about how to achieve and maintain a healthy weight, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. You can also learn more about Roswell Park’s nutrition services on our website.