How Obesity Weighs on Cancer Screenings

Prostate and cervical cancer screening affected by patient weight

(RxWiki News) Does obesity play a role in whether or not people undergo various types of cancer screening? The simple answer is "yes." The more nuanced answer says it depends on the individual's gender, race and type of cancer screening.

Obese men of all races and ethnic backgrounds are more likely to be screened for prostate cancer, while obese women - particularly white women - are less likely to have cervical cancer screenings.

"Don't let your weight keep you from having the cancer screenings you need."

A study conducted by researchers in Family and Community Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University looked at the influence obesity had on screening rates for prostate, cervical, breast and colorectal cancers among all race/ethnic groups and genders.

Heather Bittner Fagan, M.D., FAAFP M.P.H., lead author and associate professor at Thomas Jefferson University and director of Health Services Research in the University's department of Family and Community Medicine, explained the objective of the research. “A greater understanding of the relationship between cancer screening and obesity, race/ethnicity and gender can also help explain the association between obesity and increased cancer mortality,” she said.

After tobacco use, obesity is the greatest risk factor for developing cancer and not surviving the disease. These risks are particularly pertinent to cancers of the breast, cervix, colon and rectum and prostate.

Here's what the researchers learned after examining previous studies:

  • Women with excess weight had fewer Pap smears. This held true for both white and black women. The link was not as strong with black women of higher means.
  • Increasing weight increased prostate cancer screenings, including PSA (prostate-specific antigen) blood tests among men of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.
  • There was no correlation between weight and breast mammography.
  • Women who had excess weight were less likely to have colorectal screening, particularly colonoscopies. Research relating to men's screening for the disease was inconsistent.

Study author, Richard Wender, M.D., professor at Jefferson Medical College and chair of Family and Community Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, says the higher access to prostate cancer screenings among obese men could be the result of other conditions that are caused by obesity.

Men with extra weight could be visiting healthcare providers more frequently and being referred for screening.

Cancer screening use can also be impacted by cultural differences, insurance availability and healthcare access, which could be affected by gender and race/ethnicity, the researchers point out.

The authors report that "more research is needed to create a comprehensive understanding of obesity and cancer screening in race-gender subgroups such as white men, white women, black men and black women, accounting for the effects of the doctor-patient relationship, access to care and type of screening test.”

Other study authors included: Ronald E. Myers, Ph.D., Division of Population Science, Department of Medical Oncology, Thomas Jefferson University; and Nicholas Petrelli, M.D., Helen F. Graham Cancer Center, Christiana Care Health System

This research is published in the January, 2012 issue of the Journal of Obesity.

Review Date: 
January 9, 2012