CDC: America's obesity epidemic is helping cancer make a comeback

Cancer used to be one of the scariest words a patient could hear from a doctor. Then decades of better prevention, detection and treatment helped drive cancer death rates down. It’s often been redefined as a chronic disease that can be managed or even avoided altogether. The strides we’ve made against cancer are a profound victory for America’s health, but the country’s growing overweight and obesity problem threatens to drive us back to the days when cancer was a word you had to whisper.

New research in CDC’s latest Vital Signs report reveals that nearly all cancers associated with overweight and obesity are on the rise. Only the colorectal cancer rate – down 23 percent since 2005 – is going in the right direction, thanks to effective screening and awareness efforts. But alarmingly, rates for the 12 other cancers associated with overweight and obesity have actually risen seven percent in the last decade. That is a disappointing turn, especially when compared to cancers not associated with excess body weight, which dropped 13 percent during the same period.

We must act now before we risk losing the important gains we’ve made against cancer over the last three decades. I know it won’t be easy. One of the things I worry about is knowing that two out of three adults weigh more than recommended in this country, yet fewer than half of Americans know being obese increases their risk of cancer. I believe this is one of the reasons more than half a million people are diagnosed with cancers related to excess weight each year, as CDC’s new Vital Signs reports.

There are few health preventions that offer better value than avoiding weight gain. We already know obesity is behind many of the things that commonly kill us and our loved ones, such as heart disease and stroke. Now we know the association between obesity and cancer is even greater.

There are few health preventions that offer better value than avoiding weight gain.

Excess weight changes the body, increasing certain hormones and levels of inflammation that can lead to cancer. This is why we must do more to raise awareness about the association of obesity to cancer – especially among children and at-risk populations. Anyone who has ever tried to lose weight knows obesity is much easier to prevent than reverse, so it is critical that we help children adopt healthy habits before they ever become overweight.  

The new research also reveals disparities in those who suffer most from cancers associated with overweight and obesity. Among women, these cancers account for 55 percent of all cancer diagnoses, compared to only 24 percent among men. In addition, these cancers varied by race. Blacks had the highest rate (186.5 per 100,000), followed by whites (170.9 per 100,000), American Indian/Alaska Natives (162.5 per 100,000), Hispanics (150.6 per 100,000), and Asian/Pacific Islanders (128.4 per 100,000). And, two out of every three people diagnosed with these types of cancers are aged 50-74 years.

The good news is that we can do a lot to turn these alarming trends around. But it will take public health, health care providers, schools, communities, workplaces, and families all working together. Americans need to understand the association between excess body weight and cancer risk. We need to encourage people to make the right choices, including eating right, being physically active, and getting cancer screenings as recommended. And, of course, people need to avoid using tobacco to prevent both cancer and other serious health conditions.

At the federal level, we are funding community programs that promote healthy eating and physical activity. We continue to collect and analyze data to better understand these latest trends in cancer, obesity, and risk factors. And we’re developing and promoting dietary and physical activity guidelines to help Americans make informed health choices.

As a doctor, and a former state health commissioner, I’ve seen how often obesity becomes the gateway to serious health problems in people. We must not let it be the gateway to cancer making a comeback in America.

Brenda Fitzgerald is the Director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Administrator of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.