She took a deep breath, pictured a cold pool and leaped into it.
She just needed to do it.
Claudia Garcia sat in front of a mirror about to shave her head, hoping it would relieve the pain on her scalp from the chemotherapy to treat her breast cancer. After a few short minutes, she opened her eyes, wondering if she would recognize herself. Instead, she found her son kissing her forehead.
“You look beautiful, mom,” he said.
Her hair falling out was one more thing Garcia couldn’t control. And there were a lot of those — the dryness in her lips, the pinching in her breast, the discomfort in her scalp.
But there was one thing she could control: her weight.
Shortly after her regular visits with her oncologist began, the 43-year-old discovered the importance of staying in shape. Her doctor at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami advised her to exercise because if she kept her weight from going up, she had less risk of the cancer coming back.
Researchers have known for decades that obesity is bad for cancer. And it’s particularly bad for breast cancer in both men and women, although they can’t pinpoint exactly why.
Despite being a nurse practitioner and knowing how important food is to the body, Garcia was surprised when she heard being overweight could be decisive for her health. So, as she went through her treatment, she tried to walk or use the treadmill in her garage at least three times a week.
She also gave up the two or three Oreo cookies she craved every other night.
“It wasn’t easy,” she said. “Your body changes, so it’s not as easy to lose weight or stay in shape.”
It’s been a little over a year since her cancer went in remission, and it still hasn’t returned.
Worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975, according to the World Health Organization. In 2016, more than 600 million adults were obese — or about 13 percent of the world’s population.
And as more and more people become obese, cancer researchers are connecting the dots between being obese and the higher risk of contracting breast cancer.
Elizabeth Wellberg, a researcher at the University of Colorado Cancer Center, believes these studies are most important so patients understand what happens inside their bodies, and why it’s critical to eat healthy and exercise.
“People are sick of hearing, ‘You need to lose weight,’” she said. “It’s easy to just throw that out there, but it’s frustrating to people. They want to know why, so we’re trying to identify what it really is about it.”
Researchers across the world are engaged in this effort. For women, many factors come into play, especially menopause.
Locally, Dr. Joyce Slingerland, director of the Braman Family Breast Cancer Institute at Sylvester, has been studying breast cancer and cancer cells for at least seven years.
She said her research shows obese women have a one-and-a-half times higher risk of developing breast cancer after menopause than the general population. She has also found when obese women are diagnosed, they have lower survival rates than their counterparts.
“We’re beginning to find obese fat is a kind of source of inflammation, and that’s bad for cancer,” she said.
It’s widely known that in postmenopausal women, the risk rises as a woman’s body mass index, or BMI, increases.
The median age of a breast cancer diagnosis in U.S. women is 62, according to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, the organizer behind Saturday’s Komen Miami/Fort Lauderdale More Than Pink Walk at Bayfront Park.
But what about premenopausal women?
In hopes of studying younger women, Hazel Nichols, a researcher at the University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, collaborated with a group from the National Institutes of Health that combined data from 19 studies total — nine in North America, seven in Europe, two in Asia and one in Australia.
The studies followed women, sometimes for decades, recording information on them, including weight and body measurements at different ages. Over time, some of them got breast cancer. The large-scale project allowed researchers to analyze data of about 750,000 women and more than 13,000 cases of breast cancer.
Using this data, Nichols co-led a study to examine different body mass indexes over time and their effect. Published in June, the paper shows that while for postmenopausal women, having a higher BMI increases the risk of cancer, it is the opposite for premenopausal women.
Premenopausal women who have a higher fat mass actually have a lower risk of getting cancer.
“That’s a big unanswered question,” Nichols said.
Although the study is not advocating for women to gain weight, it does show risk factors do not operate in the same way throughout a woman’s life, Nichols said. She hopes researchers someday better understand what it is about having more fat mass earlier in life that lowers the risk of having cancer.
“Maybe there’s something we can do ecologically about the tissue that would give us prevention for young women,” she said.
“Maybe less women will have cancer if we do.”
BREAST CANCER WALK
Susan G. Komen More Than Pink Walk: The 23rd annual breast cancer awareness event takes place from 6:30 a.m. to noon Saturday, Oct. 13, at Bayfront Park, 301 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. For information, call 954-909-0454, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit komenmiaftl.org.
BREAST CANCER EVENTS
Aventura Mall Breast Cancer Pink Walk: Participants meet in Center Court, where T-shirts are available for purchase. All proceeds benefit the Women’s Breast and Heart Health Initiative. Aventura Mall will match every dollar donated. Registration begins at 8 a.m., followed by a warm-up dance class at 8:30 a.m., and the walk starts at 9 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 14. Aventura Mall, 19501 Biscayne Blvd., Aventura. Free. 305-935-1110 or https://aventuramall.com/
Broward Health North Panel Discussion: Broward Health medical experts and breast cancer survivors will discuss various treatment options. The panel will be at 9 a.m. Oct. 31 at the Conference Center at Broward Health North, 201 E. Sample Road, Deerfield Beach. To register, call 954-759-7400 or visit BrowardHealth.org/Events
Cut for the Cure: Get a haircut to support those fighting breast cancer, and honor those who have died. All proceeds are donated to Susan G. Komen Miami/Fort Lauderdale; noon-4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 14; The Heritage Salon, 5939 S. University Dr., Davie. $20 women, $15 men, $20 pink highlight strip. 954-434-3100.
Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk: Annual three- to five-mile walks held to raise awareness and funds to save lives. Donations accepted:
Yoga for Breast Cancer Awareness: Join instructor Eliana Balk for an all-levels yoga class celebrating local breast cancer survivors. This donation-based class is available for anyone, but is especially accessible to those who have recently undergone breast cancer surgery or treatment; 3 p.m. Oct. 21; The Yoga Nest, 12165 Sheridan St., Hollywood. RSVP to email@example.com or 754-610-1660 or theyoganestfl.com.