Obesity and cancer: How bariatric surgery can reduce the risks

  • Researchers say bariatric weight-loss surgery can significantly reduce the risk of obesity-related cancers.
  • They say these latest findings build on previous research that shows the benefits of getting bariatric surgery.
  • Experts say they hope the new research will encourage people with obesity to have the procedure done.

Bariatric surgery can help people with obesity to obtain and maintain a healthier weight, and as a result can help save their lives.

In fact, undergoing the weight-reduction surgery can slash the risk of obesity-related cancer by more than half over the course of a decade, suggests a new study presented at the Digestive Disease Week 2023 conference.

The study, which hasn’t been published yet in a peer-reviewed journal, represents the latest in a growing body of research demonstrating that bariatric surgery can help reduce the risk of obesity-linked cancer.

Experts say the study demonstrates more than most other research just how dramatically bariatric surgery can cut the risk of obesity-related cancer.

The study also involved more than 100,000 participants, a much larger-scale study than others that focused on weight-reduction procedures reducing cancer associated with obesity. The study’s 10-year span also exceeds that of most other research on the topic.

“I think this study will really get people’s attention, especially when we can now say bariatric surgery reduces the risk of obesity-related cancers by more than half,” Dr. Akuezunkpa Welcome, a bariatric surgeon and chief of surgery at the NYU Langone Health in New York, told Medical News Today.

Raising awareness for bariatric surgery

Bariatric surgery has been shown to reduce heart disease and stroke, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, type 2 diabetes, and gout while increasing life expectancy.

It also often can also improve people’s outlook, mental health, relationships, employability, and fertility.

However, Welcome said such benefits often aren’t enough to inspire obese people to undergo the surgery.

“But,” she added, “patients are much more afraid of cancer, and when patients hear that ‘C word,’ it really gets their attention. They take it much more seriously, so I think when word of a study showing such a dramatic reduction gets out there, I expect it to really reach obese people and inspire many who would not have had the surgery otherwise to do so.”

She said most people who seek the surgery to reduce their cancer risk are self-referrals who learn from family or friends who have had the procedure.

She suggested the study’s findings will significantly increase awareness and, in turn, referrals for bariatric surgeries.

Details from the obesity-related cancer study

For the new study, researchers at Case Western Reserve University and University Hospitals in Ohio analyzed 10 years of medical records of more than 55,000 people with obesity who underwent bariatric surgery.

They then compared the number of cases of obesity-related cancers among them with that of an equal number of people with obesity who had not had the surgery.

The researchers adjusted results to account for known cancer risk factors such as smoking, heavy alcohol use, heart disease, and hormone therapies.

After analyzing the data, the researchers reported that 4% of the people who had had the surgery developed obesity-related cancers, compared with almost 9% of those who had not.

Reaction to the bariatric surgery study

Dr. Ali Aminian, the director of the Bariatric and Metabolic Institute at the Cleveland Clinic, told Medical News Today that the reductions in cancer resulting from the surgery and the scale of the study in terms of its number of participants and length surpassed that of other research he has seen on the topic.

“We’ve been telling people about the very serious risks of being morbidly obese for years, but this study has the potential to be a real game-changer and save lives by inspiring patients to have this operation,” Aminian said.

Dr. Vibhu Chittajallu, the study’s lead author and a gastroenterology fellow at Case Western Reserve University and University Hospitals, said in a statement that the research “adds to the building evidence that the significant weight loss associated with bariatric surgery may have a protective effect against cancer formation as well.”

He added that more research is needed to determine how bariatric surgery reduces cancer risk.

Obesity and cancer

Past research has demonstrated that obesity raises the risk of at least 13 types of cancer, but precisely why obesity might trigger chemical responses in the body that turn healthy cell cancers into cancerous cells is not fully clear.

Like other bariatric surgeons and experts, Welcome points out that chronic inflammation caused by excessive body weight has long been known to be linked with increased likelihood of developing cancer.

Fat cells, she explains, release into the bloodstream inflammatory proteins that stimulate growth of cancer cells.

That could help account for bariatric surgery resulting in weight loss decreasing production of these cancerous cells.

Other research has shown excessive body fat also can raise levels of hormones that increase the risk of cancer cells developing and multiplying.

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