Americans woefully underestimate cancer risk from obesity, survey says

January 7, 2013 | by Shawn Le

Many Americans understand that obesity is tied to heart disease and diabetes, but too few – only 7 percent – know that obesity increases the risk of cancer, according to a new survey.

Excess weight impacts cancer risk Obesity increases cancer risk, but too few Americans are aware of that fact.

The Associated Press and NORC, a leading social science research center based at the University of Chicago, conducted a national survey of 1,000 adults on their opinions about obesity and obesity-related health conditions.

"The survey assessed how the public understands the reasons behind the rising rates of obesity in the U.S., the connection between obesity and health issues including diabetes, and the role of government in addressing obesity,” the organizations said.

Overall, people are aware that obesity affects health, but that understanding seems limited to the health conditions featured prominently in the news.  When asked to identify the most serious health issues linked to obesity, an overwhelming majority – more than two-thirds of respondents – said heart disease and diabetes.

In contrast, only 7 percent said cancer risk was affected by weight.

The National Cancer Institute notes that obesity increases the risk of numerous cancers, including:

  • Esophageal
  • Pancreatic
  • Colorectal
  • Breast (after menopause)
  • Endometrial
  • Kidney
  • Thyroid
  • Gallbladder

One study has estimated an additional 500,000 cancer diagnoses by 2030 if America’s obesity epidemic continues at its present rate.

As principal investigator of the California Teachers Study, City of Hope's Leslie Bernstein, Ph.D. – director of the Division of Cancer Etiology – has been tracking how fitness and weight affect women’s cancer risk.  The study has enrolled more than 133,000 current and former female public school teachers or administrators, following their health for almost two decades.

“We know that being overweight or obese is related to a poorer prognosis in women with breast cancer, so the positive effect of activity in this population is particularly encouraging,” Bernstein said in a previous interview. “In addition, we saw that activity reduced breast cancer death both for women with estrogen-receptor-negative and those with estrogen-receptor-positive cancer, and for all stages of breast cancer.”

Any amount of physical activity has been shown in numerous studies to improve health, but studies specifically about excess weight can be confusing. For example, recent news articles have touted the fact that slightly overweight people live longer, but the actual data is more nuanced.

Information overload can interfere with educating the public about obesity's connection to cancer risk, but the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey reinforces the necessity of doing so.

Although 48 percent of respondents said they thought that their weight was “about right,” close to 60 percent were overweight or obese when researchers calculated the body mass index of the respondents based on their reported heights and weights. A person with a body mass index of 25 is classified as overweight; a person with a body mass index above 30 is considered obese.

But few respondents said their physicians told them they were overweight or obese. Clearly, getting the appropriate information is important.

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