Globally, the number of obese children and adolescents stands at 110 million.
When we think of obese children, we tend to jump to the stereotypes: young kids struggling to keep up in gym class and getting bullied by classmates, for example. However, there’s a deadlier issue that’s worth paying attention to. With time, gym classes and bullies fade into the background, but other, much more serious issues come into the picture. This time, we’re talking about cancer.
Can being obese at a young age lead to cancer?
A recent analysis of multiple studies examined the frequency of cancers within groups of patients with a prior history of obesity. A study from Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) detailed a pattern of cancer occurring earlier among young adults who have extra risk due to obesity. With obesity making up more and more of our current population, cancer has been occurring at younger ages across 13 specific cancer types ranging from breast, colon, esophageal, to thyroid cancer. With the average cancer diagnosis being given at 66 years, this new appearance of cancer at younger ages may be linked to the pandemic occurrence of risk causing obesity.
Common malignant cancers that typically occur in patients older than 50 years are now becoming common among younger patients. New obesity-linked malignancies reported within the U.S population show that that the lowest increase in cancer occurrence in young adults (22-44 years) is esophageal cancer at a 2.3%. Thyroid cancer had an astounding 23.9% jump in occurrence among young adults. Cancer in young people is becoming less uncommon, but is it possible for obesity to be the cause of this increased prevalence?
Obesity can affect the mechanisms that lead to cancer or the premalignant precursors of cancer. Stressors caused by obesity that can lead to cancer can be found in chronic inflammation, additional adipose tissue, and in various physiological issues, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Chronic inflammation can promote new cancer cell growth. Short-term inflammation to heal a normal injury is a perfectly normal, but chronic inflammation can cause permanent damage to DNA, cause rapid cell growth of mutated cells, and provide a microenvironment suitable for cancer growth.
Nathan A. Berger, M.D. the director of the Center for Science, Health and Society at CWRU has suggested that additional aspects of patient history should be introduced as parameters of cancer screening to address this added risk from obesity. Dr. Berger states the issue to be,
“…(a) lack of (cancer) screening and…tumor promotion by lifestyle factors including obesity, consumption of red and processed meat, and possibly alcohol and tobacco use.”
Cancer screening has been prescribed to older patients to help with early detection, but with the increasing incidence of cancer among young people, an earlier screening with parameters to detect at-risk patients with a history of current or past obesity needs to be implemented. Prevention and reversal of obesity by interdisciplinary collaboration needs to be implemented to stop the pandemic of obesity and the matching rise in early cancers.