Obesity Surgery May Cut Cancer Risk

Last week, Caelie Haines took her 14-year-old daughter to Six Flags Theme Park near Washington, D.C. The roller coasters made the teen ecstatic, but it wasn't just the thrill of the speed. It was the fact that her mother could finally ride with her.

"The last time we were there, I couldn't fit on the rides," Haines says. Their previous trip took place before her August 2006 weight-loss surgery, when she weighed 316 pounds.

Since the procedure, the 38-year-old has shed nearly 150 pounds. As she had hoped, her high blood pressure, sleep apnea and borderline diabetes went away. But she had never imagined that the surgery might protect her from the disease that has affected her mother -- cancer.

Bariatric surgery for weight loss may reduce a person's risk of developing cancer by about 80 percent, according to a study presented today at the annual meeting of the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery. Severely obese people who underwent surgery had an 85 percent drop in breast cancer and a 70 percent decrease in colon cancer compared with people who didn't have surgery.

Researchers at McGill University in Montreal looked at nearly 6,800 severely obese people -- some who elected to undergo surgery and others who didn't. Their body mass index (BMI), an indicator of body fat based on height and weight, fell into one of two categories: above 40, or above 35 if they had another weight-related condition, including high blood pressure, type-2 diabetes or sleep apnea. A BMI between 18.5 and 24.9 is considered normal.

During the past few years, published studies from the United States and Sweden have also shown that bariatric surgery may lower cancer risks. The current research extends this by looking at individual cancers.

These findings add to the list of ways that bariatric surgery may improve overall health. It also helps lessen diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, arthritis and infertility.

"No other operation has ever done so much to help so many," says Dr. Daniel Jones, chief of the section of minimally invasive surgery at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

Today, 64 million Americans are considered obese, and the American Cancer Society lists obesity among the major risk factors for cancer.

Though the decision to have major surgery should not be taken lightly, the benefits may outweigh the risks for many.

"People need to know that in addition to the other known benefits of weight loss surgery... they may protect themselves from cancer," says lead study author Dr. Nicolas Christou, director of bariatric surgery at McGill University.

Haines' 61-year-old mother has battled both bladder and cervical cancer, so Haines says she's thankful that the surgery may lower her chance of suffering from the same disease.

"To know that it's helped even in ways I wasn't aware of, it's wonderful," she says.

Not an Easy Way Out

Weight-loss surgery began in the 1960s, but it was considered a "taboo" among doctors even into the 1990s, Jones says.

This attitude was shaped by the high rates of complications and death from the surgery. In addition, many members of the medical community and the general public believed, as some still do, that obesity is related to a person's lack of willpower and can be fixed simply by diet and exercise.

"People think it's an easy way out," Haines says about the choice to have surgery. "It's not."

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