New Study: Here’s How Weight Loss Surgery Can Lower Women’s Cancer Risk

New research indicates a significant link between weight loss surgery and decreased cancer risk, with pronounced benefits for female patients.

Bariatric surgery is a medical procedure aimed at helping individuals with severe obesity lose significant weight. This is not just a cosmetic solution—it’s a potentially life-saving intervention. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity is linked to a plethora of health complications, including heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers. Bariatric surgery works by making changes to the digestive system, either by reducing the size of the stomach, rerouting the small intestines, or both.

If you’ve ever contemplated the broader health implications of bariatric surgery beyond just weight loss, there’s now compelling research to consider. A new study published in the peer-reviewed journal Obesity in August 2023 sheds light on the procedure’s potential benefits, especially concerning the well-documented connection between obesity and cancer. The findings suggest that bariatric surgery could play a pivotal role in curtailing that risk.

“As scientists study human diseases, an element of discovery is to confirm like results from multiple studies. This research represents another important study that strongly supports the long-term benefits of weight loss surgery in the prevention of cancer,” said Ted Adams, PhD, MPH, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Utah School of Medicine and key author behind the study.

Examining decades of data

Drawing from a robust dataset (The Utah Population Database) spanning nearly four decades (1982 to 2019), researchers analyzed 21,837 bariatric surgery patients. These individuals were matched based on age, sex and BMI with a similar number of people who hadn’t undergone the surgery. The study explored various surgical procedures, including gastric bypass, gastric banding, sleeve gastrectomy and duodenal switch, aiming to uncover differences in cancer incidence and mortality between the groups.

Overall, patients who underwent bariatric surgery experienced a 25% reduced risk of developing any form of cancer compared to the nonsurgical group. This protective effect was especially pronounced among female surgery patients, showcasing a 41% decreased risk for obesity-related cancers such as breast, ovarian, uterine and colon. The study hints at hormonal changes as a potential catalyst for these observed reductions. However, the same protective effect wasn’t observed in male surgery patients.

There was another silver lining for female patients: Beyond just a lowered incidence of cancer, they also benefited from a significantly reduced cancer mortality rate post-surgery.

Dr. Adams commented, “Important findings of this study are that bariatric surgery results in lower incidence rates of colon cancer (prior studies have not been consistent). Also, both pre-and post-menopausal women experience reduced breast cancer incidence following bariatric surgery, which may suggest weight loss among women in either category with severe obesity may benefit from reduced breast cancer.”

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Future implications

While it’s not the first time bariatric surgery has been linked to reduced cancer incidence and mortality, the breadth and depth of this study set it apart. Earlier, the same research group had zoomed in on a subset of patients who underwent the Roux-en-Y gastric bypass procedure—but this recent investigation casts a much wider net, encompassing a 38-year follow-up period and nearly 22,000 patients across four primary bariatric procedures.

While the researchers did not explore the exact mechanisms behind the surgery’s cancer-protective effects, other studies offer some clues. Bariatric surgery may dampen factors predisposing individuals to cancer, such as inflammation, insulin resistance (closely associated with diabetes) and oxidative stress.

The findings hold promise and have profound implications for future research and clinical practice. The substantial reductions in colon, breast, ovarian, and uterine cancer incidence following bariatric surgery will likely fuel further research.

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Dr. Patricia Varacallo, DO
Tricia is a doctor of osteopathy with experience in primary healthcare. She received her medical degree from the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine and conducts clinical research in Sports Medicine and Orthopedics, as she is motivated by the desire to contribute to the development of innovative treatments and therapies. She is also a certified lifestyle coach for the CDC-recognized National Diabetes Prevention Program, empowering individuals to make lasting, healthy lifestyle changes. Dr. Varacallo loves to write— especially about health, wellness, and grief. Drawing from her own experiences of loss and caregiving, she loves to offer support and encouragement to those navigating their own grief journeys. Outside of her professional life, she enjoys traveling and exploring the sunny beaches of Florida with her significant other, always ready for their next adventure.