High BMI may put women at risk for early colorectal cancer

March 18, 2019 Providence Health Team

A new study found an association between high body mass index and early cases of colorectal cancer.

Substantial weight gain after age 18 may also play a role.

Diagnoses of early-onset colorectal cancer before the age of 50 are on the rise in America.

Young women today know that maintaining their weight isn't just about fitting into a pair of skinny jeans—it's really about ensuring an optimal level of health and wellness. When a woman's weight is high enough to be considered obese, it can put them at increased risk for health issues ranging from diabetes and poor sleep to joint problems and heart disease. Now, a new study says women whose weight is considered obese may face another health concern: early-onset colorectal cancer.

The report, which was published in JAMA Oncology, based its findings upon 85,256 women in the Nurses' Health Study II, an ongoing study that focuses on chronic disease.  An association was noted between obesity and a higher risk of colorectal cancer in women before the age of 50. Women who had higher body mass index measurements (25 to 29.9 for overweight women and 30 or more for obese women) had almost double the chance of getting this kind of early-onset cancer compared to women in the normal BMI range of 18.5 to 24.9.

This is noteworthy because there has been a rise in recent years in cases of early-onset colorectal cancer in the United States. The Colorectal Cancer Alliance notes that 11% of all colon cancer cases, and 18% of rectal cancer diagnoses are in people younger than 50. That is the age when colonoscopy, the typical cancer screening tool, is first recommended for patients. When colorectal cancer occurs before age 50, there is a lower chance of it being caught early, which is the best time for treatment that may bring optimal results. In fact, the rise in colorectal cancer cases before age 50 has led the American Cancer Society to change its screening recommendation. Now, the organization advises that screening should begin at age 45 for people who have an average risk of cancer. 

This isn't a concern only for women in middle age. The study also noted that significant weight gain after the age of 18 may also be a contributing factor for early occurrence of colorectal cancer. So it's important for women to maintain a healthy weight from early adulthood onward. 

Women who are struggling with obesity can take several steps, which can include working with a registered dietitian on developing a healthy eating plan; crafting a workout regimen that encompasses at least 150 minutes of moderate activity each week; meeting with a support group or counselor; or exploring options for medication or weight-loss surgery. 

Women should also know the potential signs of colorectal cancer. They include bleeding, either in the rectum or showing up in stools, changes to normal bowel movements, stomach pain or cramps, fatigue and unexplained weight loss. Anyone experiencing these symptoms should immediately contact their health care provider. 

Whether you're looking for preventative solutions, health exams, nutrition guidance, or anything in between, Providence St. Joseph Health is your trusted partner in health and wellness. Get started by signing up for My Chart, our online patient portal, or downloading our Health Connect app today. Looking for a family doctor? Find a Providence St. Joseph Health provider near you:

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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