BOSTON — Could losing weight after a breast cancer diagnosis prevent the cancer from coming back and increase the chance at survival? New research is hoping to answer that question, and potentially impact breast cancer treatment forever.
“We know that obesity at the time of breast cancer diagnosis is linked to a higher risk of cancer recurrence and death from breast cancer,” said Dr. Jennifer Ligibel, Director of the Leonard P. Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies and Healthy Living at Dana Farber Cancer Institute and the principal investigator of the Breast Cancer Wait Loss trial (BWEL). “We’ve known for a long time that if a woman has obesity at the time she’s diagnosed with breast cancer, she is at a higher risk of these poor outcomes, like recurrence and mortality. What we don’t know is whether losing weight after you’ve already been diagnosed will actually improve these outcomes, reduce the risk of occurrence, and improve survival rates.”
Nearly 3,200 women from more than 600 cancer centers across the U.S. and Canada have been enrolled in the study -- which began in 2016 – on a rolling basis. All of the women had completed breast cancer treatment and all of them had a BMI of at least 27 (in the middle of the ‘overweight’ range).
Half of the women were given health education materials alone while the others were also enrolled in a telephone-based weight loss program.
“There was a more than 5% weight loss in favor of the women who were in the weight loss group, which is about a 12-pound weight loss on average in the women in the weight loss group compared to the women who just got the health education materials,” said Dr. Ligibel. “This was really a critical step because if the program didn’t work, then we could never see whether weight loss improves outcomes. If people don’t lose weight, then you can’t figure out if that actually could be a part of breast cancer treatment.”
Ligibel said researchers will continue to track and follow the women for up to 10 years after they were enrolled in the study to see if the weight loss group has better long term outcomes compared to the other group.
“This would really become the first lifestyle-based treatment for breast cancer,” said Ligibel. “This study really has the potential to make this be a part of standard breast cancer care where women would get the prescription for tamoxifen, as well as a weight loss coach that would help them make changes in their diet and exercise in the years after cancer diagnosis.”
Elaine McCauley Meehan participated in Ligibel’s study.
She lives in Brighton and received treatment for an aggressive and rare form of breast cancer at Dana Farber.
“I’ve never missed a mammogram, so it was a little bit shocking to go from absolutely nothing to just massive tumors,” McCauley Meehan said, speaking of her diagnosis in Dec. 2019. “I’m thankful I live in Boston obviously very thankful because I have the best of the best [doctors].”
McCauley Meehan said she gained weight during her cancer treatments, and weight has been something she has always struggled with, so she was excited to join Ligibel’s study.
She ended up losing 62 pounds in just two years.
“Everything has changed in my life,” McCauley Meehan said. “I am happier than I have ever been in my entire life.”
McCauley Meehan said the tools she learned during the study have transformed her life and helped her shape a new lifestyle.
“I am contributing to my own health,” McCauley Meehan said. “I mean, you would do it if you had diabetes or high cholesterol or heart disease, why wouldn’t I do it for my breast cancer? It just makes sense.”
Dr. Ligibel thinks they will have preliminary results in the next couple of years.
She is set to present her research at the annual American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Annual Meeting in Chicago on June 5.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates as more information becomes available.
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