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Obesity makes cancer harder to treat - researchers

July 9, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
As the number of obese children continues to rise, there's concern the number of childhood cancer cases will rise as well. Researchers at Children's Hospital Los Angeles are hoping finding the link between the two could be the answer to finding new treatments.

Saloman Chavez, 16, was a typical teenager until he was told he had acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

Chavez became one of nearly 13,000 American children diagnosed with cancer each year. It's a number that's expected to rise as the incidence in childhood obesity does the same.

"Obesity seems to increase the risk of developing cancer but also from dying from cancer," said Dr. Steven Mittelman, a pediatric endocrinologist at Children's Hospital Los Angeles.

But cancer isn't the only disease that obesity raises the risk for. Being overweight also raises the likelihood for heart disease, diabetes and arthritis.

There is good news. Losing just 5 percent of your body weight can truly lower your risk. Activity helps as well. Doctors recommend getting 150 minutes per week. A good rule of thumb for children is 60 minutes of activity a day.

Obese patients have more than a 50-percent increased risk of dying from cancer compared to lean patients. Dr. Mittelman studies obesity in children with leukemia.

"We found that obesity actually directly accelerates leukemia cells' growth and progression and also makes it so that the leukemia cells are harder to treat," said Mittelman.

His team found fat cells attract and protect cancer cells. In a study using mice, Dr. Mittelman found leukemia cells easily infiltrated fatty cell tissue. He also found fat cells reduced the efficacy of multiple chemotherapies. It's a discovery that could lead to new treatments.

"If we can find out how exactly these fat cells protect the leukemia cells, then we can work on developing strategies to block this -- perhaps medications," said Mittelman.

Mittelman believes that changing an overweight child's diet at diagnosis may help their prognosis.

Today, Chavez is eating healthier and looking forward to a day he's beaten cancer.

Parents can help keep their kids weight in check by keeping them away from sugary drinks and limiting fast-food. They can encourage their children to stay active and model healthy habits, like making fitness a family activity.


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