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Weight and Leukemia: Does BMI Influence Leukemia Risk?

Posted on January 10, 2022
Medically reviewed by
Todd Gersten, M.D.
Article written by
Amy Isler, RN

The causes of obesity are many and complex, but the health consequences of obesity are well-documented. A high body mass index (BMI) is believed to contribute to many chronic health conditions such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and a person’s risk for cancer — including some types of leukemia.

Obesity, which is defined as having a BMI of 30 or higher, is a complex issue rooted in socioeconomics, demographics, ethnicity, genetics, and mental health. Obesity in the United States is on the rise, and from 2017 to 2018 alone, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported around 42.4 percent of the adult population was obese. Among children and adolescents, the CDC shared that 1 in 5 are considered to have a high BMI.

This article will discuss:

  • How obesity can increase your risk for developing leukemia
  • Types of leukemia obese people are at an increased risk for developing
  • How obesity can reduce the effectiveness of a person’s chemotherapy
  • Ways to decrease your BMI back into the healthy range

How Can Obesity Increase Your Risk for Leukemia?

While the exact cause of leukemogenesis (the development of leukemia) is widely unknown, a few studies have suggested that adipose tissue (fatty tissue) may play a part in a person’s tumor growth.

Fatty tissue can contribute to tumor growth by secreting biologically active chemicals including:

  • Leptin, a protein hormone that can cause chronic inflammation
  • Vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), a protein that stimulates angiogenesis (the formation of new blood vessels that can help cancer cells grow)

Previous studies have also found that being obese can result in the altering of a person’s DNA. If the way your DNA produces protective genes and receptors is impaired, your body can be left susceptible to the growth of leukemia cells. It can also interfere with other cell replication functions, which, in turn, can lead a person to experience a higher tumor growth factor (how fast your tumors develop).

More research is needed concerning how obesity is linked to an increased risk of developing leukemia specifically. But there are possible links to cancer and leukemia. Those lay in certain complications that are involved with obesity — chronic inflammation and increased blood insulin levels — which are known to play a part in someone’s chances of developing many types of cancer, leukemia included.

Obesity’s Effect on Chemotherapy Drugs

An abundance of fatty tissue in your body may interfere with how well you respond to chemotherapy treatment. A study has shown that adipose tissue can hinder the potency of chemotherapy. This happens because the tissue can break down certain chemicals in the drug treatment (to become less toxic), which renders the drugs less effective.

It has also been found that people with obesity have poorer outcomes with cancer recurrence. For example, it is estimated that 50 percent of obese pediatric patients with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) are more likely to experience a relapse compared with children who also have ALL but have a healthy BMI.

Which Types of Leukemia Have the Highest Risk Increase?

Meta-analysis studies examine a multitude of published scientific studies to determine what findings appear collectively. The meta-analysis studies that focus on the link between leukemia and higher body fat tend to be centered on acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL). However, there has been evidence that obesity can be a predictor for a person to develop other types of leukemia as well.

One study that looked at scientific papers published between January 1950 and December 2010 broke down the percentage of obese people diagnosed with leukemia by subtype.

  • Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) — 38 percent
  • Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) — 62 percent
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) — 17 percent
  • Chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) — 27 percent

Overall, the meta-analysis of six decades of findings concluded that someone who is obese has a mild to moderate — 19 percent according to published studies — likelihood of developing leukemia compared to those who aren’t. Further research on the topic is needed, and may lead to targeted drugs and interventions that can help doctors and experts better understand — and treat — leukemia in the future.

What You Can Do

If you are in a higher risk BMI category (obese), there are actions you can take that might improve your leukemia treatment outcomes and your chance for tumor regression. Here are some ideas. (As always, follow up with your primary physician or your oncologist if you make any changes that may affect your treatment plan.)

What Is a Healthy Weight?

The BMI spectrum doctors use places people into four categories: underweight, healthy, overweight, and obese. The category a person falls into is calculated using their height and weight. To figure out where you are on the BMI spectrum — and what is a healthy weight range for your height — you can calculate your BMI score using a BMI calculator. (A BMI of greater than 30 is considered obese.)

Weight Loss Is a Lifestyle

Many people have experienced fluctuating weight at some point in their lifetime, and it can be a constant struggle for some. It is important to understand that a healthy weight is not rooted in a particular diet. Rather, it stems from multiple factors — including the way you lead your life and care for yourself.

Here are some ways to get to a healthy weight and stay at one:

  • Try to get 30 minutes of continuous movement each day.
  • Be mindful of what you eat and as you eat.
  • Choose fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and protein.
  • Choose smaller portion sizes.
  • Drink lots of water.
  • Avoid smoking.
  • Limit your alcohol consumption.

Weight loss is a journey, and being patient with yourself while you incorporate healthy choices into your lifestyle can make a big difference. Always remember that you are not alone. There is a large community of people at MyLeukemiaTeam waiting to cheer you on.

You’re Not Alone

If you have leukemia, it can help to have the support of others who understand. By joining MyLeukemiaTeam, you gain a community of more than 9,800 people impacted by leukemia. Members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their experiences with others who understand life with leukemia.

Have you struggled with your weight? What have you done to try to maintain a healthy lifestyle? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a discussion on MyLeukemiaTeam.

Todd Gersten, M.D. is a hematologist-oncologist at the Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute in Wellington, Florida. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Amy Isler, RN is a registered nurse with over six years of experience as a credentialed school nurse. Learn more about her here.

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