Breast cancer survivors are often surprised with weight gain

It seems unfair that after getting diagnosed with breast cancer and successfully battling the disease that survivors should have a higher rate of weight gain than women who never had breast cancer.

Of course, there’s nothing fair about breast cancer or illness in general, but why should women who survived breast cancer have another tough fight on their hands? Losing weight, for breast cancer survivors isn’t a cosmetic preoccupation, it’s a fight for life.

The statistics regarding breast cancer and weight gain are grim. 

  • There are more than 3.5 million breast cancer survivors in the U.S. alone who have a history of invasive breast cancer. 1
  • Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer death among women ages 20 to 59. 4
  • Breast cancer survivors are slightly more than twice as likely to gain more than 11 pounds within five years of treatment as women who are cancer-free. 2
  • Breast cancer is the most common cancer among American women after skin cancer. 5
  • 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer during her lifetime. 6
  • Among women diagnosed with breast cancer, those who gained weight after breast cancer diagnosis had an elevated risk of both recurrence and mortality, adjusting for weight before diagnosis. This risk increased with increasing weight gain.3
  • More than 30 years of research indicate that weight gain is a common and persistent problem among breast cancer survivors. In fact, 50-96% of women experience weight gain during treatment and many, including some women who remain weight stable during treatment, report progressive weight gain in the months and years after diagnosis. While the amount of weight gain varies depending on type and length of treatment, age at diagnosis, type of cancer and many other factors, studies consistently show that the rate of weight gain among breast cancer survivors is significantly higher than that of the general population and of women without the disease.7

Gaining weight is never a pleasant surprise. Some of us, like me, have a long history with weight management. We have been monitoring our food and activity for so long it’s become “what we do.” It doesn’t take a lot of thought; it’s as natural as, well, as eating. It’s like buckling the safety belt in the car. I do it as soon as I get in.

There’s no conscious thought, however when I feel rebellious and decide, “I’m not going to buckle my safety belt,” the rebellion only lasts a few seconds before I feel vulnerable and buckle up because I like the safe way it makes me feel.

That’s how I feel about the way I eat and exercise. I am mindful of both and I seek to keep my food choices and portions in my “safe zone.” I also feel unsafe when I let too much time go by without some moving – the more intense the activity, the better. I feel good and safe when I do those things and not so safe when I make a decision not to do them.

When I was new to weight management, however, it was a struggle to make changes to keep my weight at a healthy level. It wasn’t easy to establish those habits. I know how breast cancer survivors must feel to be surprised with weight gain. I understand how scary it must be to recognize that the weight gain is more than just a nuisance; it can be life threatening. Some might think it’s easier when it’s a matter of life or death, but it’s not easier, just more urgent.

Weight Watchers meetings inspired me to make changes. Listening to the weight loss pros in my meeting each week, which included both the leader, and fellow members (who were on their way to their goals, many had already reached goal and came each week to maintain their goal) taught me things about myself and weight loss that I may never have discovered on my own.

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Weight Watchers and the American Cancer Society are working together to support breast cancer survivors with Project LIFT. Live Inspired, Fight Together. It’s my pleasure and hope that as general manager of Weight Watchers of Maine breast cancer survivors who are experiencing weight gain and struggling to lose weight will visit a Weight Watchers meeting for free, as my guest. Weight Watchers can put fun into the fight.

1 Miller KD et al. Cancer treatment and survivorship statistics, 2016. CA Cancer 2016;66:271-289.
2 Gross, A., May, B., Axilbund, J., Armstrong, D., Roden, R., & Visvanathan, K. (2015). Weight Change in Breast Cancer Survivors Compared to Cancer-Free Women: A Prospective Study in Women at Familial Risk of Breast Cancer. Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention, 24(8), 1262-1269. doi:10.1158/1055-9965.epi-15-0212
3 Kroenke, C. (2005). Weight, Weight Gain, and Survival After Breast Cancer Diagnosis. Journal Of Clinical Oncology, 23(7), 1370-1378. doi:10.1200/jco.2005.01.079
4 Siegel RL, Miller KD, Jemal A. Cancer statistics, 2016. CA Cancer J Clin. 66(1):7-30, 2016.
5 Breast Cancer Facts & Figures 2015-2016. Atlanta: American Cancer Society, Inc. 2015
6 DevCan: Probability of Developing or Dying of Cancer Software, Version 6.7.3. Statistical Research and Applications Branch, National Cancer Institute, 2015.
7 Vance V, e. (2016). Weight gain in breast cancer survivors: prevalence, pattern and health consequences. – PubMed – NCBI.

Jackie Conn

About Jackie Conn

Jackie Conn is married and has four grown daughters and four grandchildren. She is a Weight Watchers success story. She's a weight loss expert with 25 years of experience guiding women and men to their weight-related goals. Her articles on weight management have been published in health, family and women's magazines. She has been a regular guest on Channel 5 WABI news, FOX network morning program Good Day Maine and 207 on WCSH.