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Obesity and Cancer: The Shocking Health Trend Affecting Millennials

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Avocado toast and Snapchat seem to be the most innocent of Millennial trends compared to an awakening health finding that’s affecting this generation’s (and future generations’) whole health and longevity. 

“As the obesity rates across this age group continue to rise, so have the rates of six different types of cancer that were once considered “adult” diseases,” shares Pablo Arnoletti, MD, Director of Surgical Oncology for AdventHealth and a renowned pancreatic cancer specialist.

In a new report published by the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute, obesity is now associated with the increasing rates of multiple myeloma, colorectal, endometrial, gallbladder, kidney and pancreatic cancers that were found among adults ages 25 to 49 who were a part of a longitudinal study between 1995 and 2014. 

Dr. Arnoletti shares his insights into what this new information means, as well as how these startling findings can ignite change for the better.

The Connection Between Obesity and Cancer

“Obesity is a multifactorial disease; it’s caused by a combination of genetic, dietary, social and cultural factors. As our society (and especially younger generations) become more sedentary and continue to consume high-sugar, high-fat and processed foods in their diet, the obesity rates will continue to rise,” Dr. Arnoletti explains. 

But an additional concern has now come to light: the link between increasing obesity and cancer rates among young people, which has the medical community on high alert. 

“With the trend in obesity rates rising among younger populations, we’re also experiencing a slow but steady increase in cancer incidence, including pancreatic cancer,” Dr. Arnoletti adds. 

This is alarming because while pancreatic cancer accounts for only about three percent of all cancers in the U.S., it is responsible for about seven percent of all cancer deaths. 

“Pancreatic cancer is currently the third cause of cancer-related deaths, and by 2030 it’s expected to move up to the second leading cause,” states Dr. Arnoletti. 

With the upward trend of younger generations being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which has a higher mortality rate compared to many other cancers, younger people are at risk for losing their life to this disease. 

“Pancreatic cancer has traditionally been a disease of the adult population over 60 years old, but today, it’s become fairly common to see to see patients in their 40s with it. There’s certainly a shift in pancreatic and other cancers affecting younger people,” explains Dr. Arnoletti. 

But the big question is why.

“Obesity plays a role in cancer by triggering changes in pancreatic cells to be malignant, but for reasons not completely understood at this time,” says Arnoletti.

Dr. Arnoletti notes that in addition to obesity, risk factors for pancreatic cancer include: 

  • Being of African American decent
  • Socioeconomic factors
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Chronic pancreatitis

He emphasizes, “For some, however, there are spontaneous gene mutations that occur randomly with age to cause pancreatic cancer. Sometimes, modifiable risk factors are unrelated and it’s difficult to prevent.”

How Obesity Further Effects Pancreatic Cancer Outcomes

For those with obesity that are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, outcomes tend to be less favorable compared to someone who is of a healthy weight. 

“Obesity is a complex disease that presents challenges in pancreatic cancer treatment. It can complicate surgical treatment, as well as promote insulin resistance and metabolic derangement that leads to metabolic disorders such as type 2 diabetes. Diabetes and obesity can increase peri-operative complications and significantly affect healing and cancer treatment,” explains Dr. Arnoletti.

Reducing Your Risk of Pancreatic Cancer 

For cancers such as colorectal cancer, screenings measures make early detection — and therefore early treatment — a possibility. And earlier treatment leads to better chances of surviving and thriving through the disease.

Dr. Arnoletti comments, “Because of the rising colorectal cancer rates among younger generations, there has been a big push to move the recommended screening age earlier for patients with average risk, which is now age 45 without other risk factors.”

For pancreatic cancer, however, there is no comparable screening test, and symptoms often do not present in the early stages of the cancer. So too commonly, pancreatic tumors are detected in advanced stages unless incidentally discovered during imaging tests for unrelated diseases or conditions.

But while there are no early screening measures for pancreatic cancer, the message here is not all bleak. Dr. Arnoletti says there’s an important call to action to help protect our younger generations: You can reduce your risk of pancreatic cancer by avoiding tobacco smoking and adopting a lifestyle that promotes a healthy weight. 

A Shifting Paradigm

Dr. Arnoletti states, “Traditionally obesity was linked to increased risk for cardiovascular diseases, not cancer. But today, that paradigm has changed; we’re seeing that obesity is proven to play a role in the development of certain cancers.” 

Once more, social-cultural beliefs about obesity are evolving as well. 

Dr. Arnoletti adds, “Obesity is now seen as a complex disease that can be treated; those living with obesity do not have a moral flaw, there is a genetic component as well as social, behavioral and cultural factors that all contribute to developing the disease, and there are medically-guided programs and procedures to help you overcome it.” 

This shift is a significant breakthrough that increases the awareness of obesity risks for younger and future generations. And focusing on your whole health in body, mind and spirit is one way to take charge and reduce your risk of obesity-related diseases such as cancer, type 2 diabetes and many more. 

Tackling Obesity and Cancer with a Whole-Health Approach to Life

“For health and longevity, it’s now more important than ever for our younger populations to adopt a lifestyle that promotes health and reduces risk factors for obesity and obesity-related diseases,” recommends Dr. Arnoletti. 

He suggests the following lifestyle tips:

  • Follow a diet that is higher in lean protein and lower in carbohydrates and fat to maintain a healthy weight for your age and body
  • Pause from devices and be physically active on a regular basis
  • Avoiding tobacco products and smoking 

Innovations in Pancreatic Cancer Treatment

There’s another important paradigm shift happening: Today, we have significant advances in pancreatic cancer diagnosis, treatment and outcomes.   

“Our team is deeply committed to providing comprehensive approach to treating pancreatic cancer, and pancreatic malignancy and diseases. As a center of excellence, we’re focused on shortening the time to a diagnosis using highly advanced diagnostic techniques so we can begin the most effective, personalized treatment plan as soon as possible,” says Dr. Arnoletti.  

He adds, “We want patients to know to come to a center of excellence for pancreatic disease and cancer if you have a pancreatic cyst, tumor, pancreatitis or other related condition, so that our multidisciplinary team of experts with experience and the latest techniques can guide you to a proper diagnosis and treatment, because delays in diagnosis lead to delays in treatment, which can affect your outcomes.” 

Dr. Arnoletti and his team see over 300 pancreatic cancer patients and perform 100 pancreatic surgeries per year for pancreatic cancer and diseases, which is over double the amount of surgeries considered high-volume nationally. This experience extends from physicians to nurses, nutrition, physical therapy and any care that our patients receive at AdventHealth.

Paving New Discoveries in Pancreatic Cancer Care

As a center of excellence in pancreatic cancer care, Dr. Arnoletti and his team are dedicated to leading pancreatic cancer care through a robust research program. 

“We are always involved in ongoing research to better understand pancreatic cancer and discover more effective treatment options for our patients. We work closely with the Pancreatic Cancer Collaborative Group that connects us with other major cancer institutes in the state of Florida so that we are all working together to find new ways to offer more hope,” says Dr. Arnoletti.

“We have a motto here when patients come to us saying that someone told them that nothing could be done to help them, and that is: More than treating cancer, we want to care for each individual because every patient is different and not a single treatment or approach applies for everyone across the board. We believe there is always something we can do to bring peace of mind with compassion and the latest and best treatments available,” Dr. Arnoletti concludes.

Learn more about AdventHealth Cancer Institute’s comprehensive, whole-person approach to digestive cancer care. 

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