WellSpan Sechler Family Cancer Center's 2017 Obesity and Nutrition Study

Obesity and Cancer Risk: Prevention Through Healthy Lifestyle and Nutrition

The WellSpan Sechler Family Cancer Center (SFCC) and the Lebanon Valley Family YMCA joined forces to get the word out about the increased risk for cancer due to obesity. It may be surprising to learn that aside from not smoking, maintaining a healthy body weight is the single most important lifestyle factor to reduce the risk of at least eleven types of cancer, including post-menopausal breast cancer, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research.

The AICR estimates that almost 133,000 U.S. cancer cases per year are linked to being overweight or obese, and yet approximately 70% of Americans are overweight or obese. Furthermore, only about half of Americans are even aware that there is an increased risk for cancer due to obesity. More startling figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Report from October 2017  state that more than 630,000 people in the United States have a cancer diagnosis associated with obesity with 55% cancer in women and 24% cancer in men being obesity-related.

When reviewing the community needs for Lebanon County, the SFCC Cancer Committee members determined that health education and outreach in our community needs to address information about the risk obesity poses for cancer. According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at healthdata.org, Lebanon County has a higher incidence of obesity than the rest of the state of Pennsylvania as well as the national rate in the United States.

As of 2011, Lebanon County women had an obesity rate of 39.5% compared to the state and national rates of 37.6% and 36.1%, respectively. And alarmingly, the Pennsylvania Department of Health reports that the obesity epidemic continues to grow even in our child population. This trend will continue to contribute to new cases of cancer diagnosed in our community.

In order to promote awareness and healthy lifestyle, nutrition and exercise habits in the community, the WellSpan SFCC staff got to work to address this community need. On October 19th, 2017, board certified specialist in oncology nutrition registered dietitian Susan Gilbert, RD, CSO, LDN, and oncology certified nurse and certified breast care nurse and nurse navigator Vicki Fern, OCN, CBCN, provided an interactive educational community program on “Obesity and Cancer Risk: Prevention Through Healthy Lifestyle and Nutrition” in conjunction with Michelle Remlinger, Healthy Living and Group Exercise Coordinator at the YMCA. Four participants attended, were weighed and had their BMIs calculated and interpreted, and learned about the increased risk that obesity poses for cancer. 100% of participants fell into the obese BMI category.

Participants took a pre- and post-program test to assess their knowledge base about obesity and cancer risk including healthy lifestyle, nutrition and exercise interventions. Scores vastly improved from an average of 59.4% on the pre-test to 94.4% after participating in the program. The program included an interactive PowerPoint presentation on the current research regarding obesity and cancer risk, mechanisms linking obesity to cancer, and ways to incorporate healthy eating and exercise habits in everyday life to decrease this risk. Participants were highly engaged and asked many questions to help them decrease their risk for obesity-related cancer, including post-menopausal breast cancer.

To further demonstrate ways to make lifestyle and nutrition changes, oncology dietitian Susan Gilbert brought recipes from the AICR website for participants to taste. All recipes met the AICR guidelines for cancer prevention including plant-based foods, at least half of grains coming from whole grains, <10% added sugars, using healthy fats and limiting sodium and total calories to meet standard adult guidelines. The recipes sampled by participants included Watermelon-Cucumber-Mint Infused Water, Southwestern Bean Salad, and Easy Baked Apples with Walnuts and Raisins. Participants learned that eating healthy can also taste good!

Michelle Remlinger also addressed simple lifestyle ways to meet the recommendations for exercise goals of at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise per day. She explained that exercise may help to decrease the risk of cancer by promoting a healthy weight and regulating blood levels of hormones that contribute to cancer risk, including post-menopausal breast cancer in women.

All (100%) participants have continued efforts to improve their healthy lifestyle by continuing exercise programs at the YMCA and verbalized the intention to incorporate healthy recipes and eating habits in their day to day life.

Efforts to educate the community about obesity and cancer risk, including post-menopausal breast cancer, have been ongoing. The SFCC staff have provided additional programs to the community throughout this past year. Programs on healthy lifestyle and nutrition included additional programs such as “Does Sugar Feed Cancer? And Other Breast Cancer Survivorship Myths” with the SFCC breast cancer support on July 19, 2017, “Prevention of Cancer Through Healthy Lifestyle and Nutrition” to the Lebanon TOPS program on August 8, 2017, “Obesity and Cancer Risk: Prevention Through Healthy Lifestyle and Nutrition” to the WellSpan Good Samaritan Hospital Residents on September 27, 2017 and the Pink Complete at the YMCA program on “Prevention of Recurrence of Breast Cancer Through Healthy Lifestyle and Nutrition.”

The staff at the SFCC are passionate about educating the community on ways to decrease risk of cancer, specifically post-menopausal breast cancer, and will continue to offer community programming to improve the health of our community. 

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