Obesity should be classified as a type of cancer as the two entities share much in common. Cancer and obesity are a growth of cells that spreads throughout the body. The growth of cancer is uncontrolled where as obesity can be controlled. The two entities both spread as the disease progresses — cancer usually begins in one part of the body and spreads to other parts whereas obesity usually starts in one area — the abdomen or buttocks — and spreads to more noticeable areas such as face, chin, and neck.
With advances in anticancer therapeutics some cancers are now considered “chronic diseases” such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity that cause multisystem dysfunction leading to significant morbidity and mortality. For example, as cancer spreads to the liver it can cause liver failure by overcrowding normal tissues and when fat spreads to the liver it causes hepatitis and cirrhosis leading to liver failure.
Another example is when cancer spreads to the lungs it can cause shortness of breath and when obesity progresses it can cause shortness of breath by restricting breathing and also by crowding the airways leading to sleep apnea. Fat cells are also highly active causing metabolic and hormonal disruption as some cancers do. Therefore, obesity and cancer have much in common as diseases and, like cancer, obesity should be considered a serious illness and potentially fatal if not treated. The good news is that obesity is highly preventable with proper diet and exercise, whereas cancer in most cases is not.
Although cancer is treatable it doesn’t always respond to therapy, but obesity almost always responds to diligent diet, exercise, and in certain cases surgery.
Why would an oncologist write about obesity you might ask? If most people thought of obesity as cancer they might consider its malignant nature and take a more proactive stance to “cure” themselves of illness and lead healthier and happier lives.
Damien Hansra, M.D., Hematology/Oncology fellow, Jackson Memorial Hospital/University of Miami