A link between cardiovascular disease risk and cancer?

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Women's Health Monthly: September 2016

Most women are familiar with the risk factors for cardiovascular disease (stroke and heart attack) and diabetes. They include things like smoking, obesity and a family history of these conditions. However, many don't know that these same risk factors can also affect your chances of developing gynecological cancers, especially endometrial cancer.  

The link between obesity and cancer is now being studied more carefully. Recent studies have shed light on the increased risk for certain types of cancer among long-time obese women. While improved diet and regular exercise may reduce the risk of cancer for all women, obese women, especially after menopause, may particularly benefit from making dietary changes, losing weight and exercising.

Endometrial cancer

Excess weight is a major risk factor for cancer of the endometrium, the inner lining of the uterus. Fat cells produce a form of estrogen, which can stimulate growth in the endometrium and lead to pre-cancerous conditions and cancer.

"Obese women are three to five times more likely to develop endometrial cancer," says Dr. Amanda Bruegl, gynecologic oncologist at the OHSU Center for Women's Health. She emphasizes that many obese women who develop endometrial cancer also suffer from other conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, that may cause their deaths instead of cancer. "For example, if your body mass index (BMI) is over 40, you have a 6.2 times higher chance of dying than women with a lower BMI at their diagnosis," says Dr. Bruegl.

The link between diabetes and cancer

Obesity can also lead to type 2 diabetes, in which your body becomes resistant to insulin, a hormone produced by the body to regulate your glucose level. At first, your pancreas makes extra insulin to compensate for elevated blood sugars, but after a while, resistance to insulin can develop such that your body can no longer lower elevated sugar levels. Although research is still being conducted to determine whether there is a direct link between elevated insulin and cancer, insulin is a hormone that can serve to stimulate growth in different types of cells.

What can you do?

Researchers and health care providers are learning more every day about how interconnected risk factors for cancer and cardiovascular disease truly are. The guidelines below will help you take steps to minimize your risk.

  • Prioritize your health: Many women are used to putting their family's health before their own, but it's important for women to make their own health a priority. Set realistic goals, and talk to your health care provider about what's right for you. 
  • Enlist support: Friend and family support is a must, Dr. Bruegl says: "If you are trying to eat healthily, make sure your family is, too. Or have a workout buddy;it's easy to bail on yourself, but more difficult to do if someone is counting on you." 
  • Get vaccinated: Many genital cancers have been proven to be caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). The most important thing women (and men) can do to prevent cervical and other cancers is to get the HPV vaccine and vaccinate their children.
  • Know the signs: The Center for Disease Control has a short video to help you understand the early symptoms of gynecologic cancers, and when to seek medical attention.

The good news is that following these guidelines can make a big difference. Making healthy food choices, exercising and see your doctor regularly aren't just important when it comes to cardiovascular disease; these are also important factors to reduce the risk of cancer, particularly endometrial cancer.

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