The Link Between Breast Cancer and Weight Gain
Weight gain, not weight loss, is a major concern for many women with breast cancer during their treatment. Learn about its impact.

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picture of young woman The Link Between Breast Cancer and Weight Gain

Weight loss often comes to mind when someone is diagnosed with cancer. But weight gain is often the problem for women being treated for breast cancer.

Can weight gain that comes from treatment really cause a problem? Experts say yes. In fact, keeping your weight in check may be a matter of life and death.

Some facts about weight and breast cancer
Studies show that obesity raises a woman's risk for breast cancer. And women who are obese when they are diagnosed have a greater risk of dying from breast cancer. They also are at a greater risk of the cancer coming back and of developing other chronic conditions.

More surprising, though, is that many women gain weight during treatment. Research shows that as many as 50 to 96 percent of women have significant weight gain as well as changes in body composition during treatment. Studies also show continued weight gain for many women in the months and years after diagnosis.

Several factors have been linked with increased weight and changes in body composition:

  • Chemotherapy. Weight gain seems to be more common in women who are treated with chemotherapy than in those treated with surgery or radiation. Also, the longer the treatment, the more weight that is gained, both during and after treatment.
  • Menopause status. Women who are premenopausal when they are diagnosed tend to gain significantly more weight than women who are postmenopausal when diagnosed. Chemo may cause some women to go into early menopause. This can cause increased fat accumulation. It can also cause changes in how the fat is distributed and a decrease in lean body mass.
  • Decreased physical activity, muscle loss, and poor diet. These are also factors that may contribute to weight gain.

Dangers of weight gain
Most women diagnosed with early stage breast cancer now have a good chance of recovering. But more studies are needed to confirm whether weight gain during treatment raises their risk of relapse.

Sadly, though, weight gain during treatment has been shown to raise the risk of obesity-related disorders. These include diabetes, heart disease, gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis, and high blood pressure.

Even without weight gain, many women undergoing treatment experience changes in body composition. Most common is a significant decrease in muscle and an increase in body fat. This change can have an impact on their risk for developing other chronic conditions. It may also have a role in eventual relapse.

Weight gain or body composition changes may also cause:

  • Increases in oestrogen, a type of estrogen thought to promote breast cancer cells
  • Additional loss of self-esteem and further altered self-image
  • Anxiety concerning appearance
  • Reduced quality of life

Lifestyle changes that can help prevent weight gain
Attention to healthy eating habits and exercise can help women undergoing treatment keep their weight down. Because of this, more doctors are suggesting eating and exercise programs for their patients with breast cancer.

The exercise factor
Increasing physical activity is one of the most important ways to prevent excess weight gain. This is especially true for women undergoing chemotherapy. Women receiving chemo have the highest risk of weight gain during and after treatment.

  • Studies show that women who exercise during treatment have better outcomes than women who don't. This holds true for every type of breast cancer therapy.
  • One study of 3,000 breast cancer patients found that women who walked just 1 or more hours per week had better survival rates than those who exercised less than that or not at all.
  • Typically, women are encouraged to exercise between 3 and 5 hours a week for the maximum benefits.
  • Strength training is encouraged to help prevent the decrease in bone density that certain types of chemotherapy cause. One study found that women who took part in weekly aerobic exercise while using weights lost nearly 6 percent less bone density than those who did no aerobic exercise.
  • Exercise can also help reduce fatigue and increase self-esteem.

A nutritious diet
There is no specific diet that has been proven to help with weight loss or maintaining weight. An overall nutritious meal plan, with limited amounts of sugar and processed foods, is encouraged. Experts generally recommend:

  • Eating 4 to 5 cups of colorful vegetables and fruits each day
  • Including in your diet high-fiber foods, such as fruits and vegetables, beans, and whole grains such as barley, quinoa, brown rice, and 100 percent whole-wheat breads and pastas
  • Consuming healthful fats such as cold-water fish, avocados, and a variety of nuts
  • Limiting sugary foods and foods high in saturated and trans fats
By Jane Schwartz Harrison, RD, Staff Nutritionist
Created on 03/10/2011
Updated on 03/11/2011
  • National Cancer Institute. Physical activity and cancer.
  • Nichols HB, Trentham-Dietz A, Egan KM, et al. Body mass index before and after breast cancer diagnosis: associations with all-cause, breast cancer, and cardiovascular disease mortality. Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention. 2009;18:1403-1409.
  • Holmes MD, Chen WY, Feskanich D, Kroenke CH, Colditz GA. Physical activity and survival after breast cancer diagnosis. Journal of American Medical Association. 2005;293(20):2479-2486.
  • Weight management during and after breast cancer treatment.
  • Avoiding weight gain important after breast cancer.
  • Vance V, Mourtzakis M, McCargar L, Hanning R. Weight gain in breast cancer survivors: prevalence, pattern and health consequences. Obesity Reviews. 2010;1-13.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A weight loss intervention for African American breast cancer survivors, 2006.
  • Rooney M, Wald A. Interventions for the management of weight and body composition changes in women with breast cancer. Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing. 2007;11:41-52.
Copyright © OptumHealth.
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