In 2017, The New York Times reported on an alarming scientific mystery: Rates of diagnosis and mortality for colorectal cancers had increased significantly in adults as young as their 20s and 30s. Researchers looked for answers: Was this a statistical blip or, at worst, evidence of a shift in disease burden to younger generations?
A recent study published in The Lancet reaffirmed adults under 50 face an increasing risk of developing cancers such as kidney and colorectal. For Karen Basen-Engquist, Ph.D., professor of Behavioral Science and co-director of the Center for Energy Balance in Cancer Prevention and Survivorship at MD Anderson, the data and findings, while striking, seemed less surprising.
“There’s no question our society is becoming increasingly obesogenic,” says Basen-Engquist. “And the impact on rising cancer rates is undeniable. It’s a reason we’re seeing more young patients. Among low-income Americans, underserved and underrepresented populations, the increase is dramatic. We’ve been waiting for the data to catch up with the outcomes for some time. Now we’re here, and we should be concerned.”
Growing epidemics of obesity and physical inactivity stress the critical roles diet, exercise and healthy body weight play not only in preventing cancer, but also in mitigating cancer’s chronic and late effects. MD Anderson’s Center for Energy Balance — a key part of the Duncan Family Institute for Cancer Prevention and Risk Assessment — addresses the issue directly by bridging knowledge gaps that impede our understanding of cancer’s link to physical activity, nutrition and obesity.
The term “energy balance” refers to the integrated effects of diet, physical activity and genetics on growth and body weight over an individual’s lifetime. Faculty, researchers and staff associated with the Center for Energy Balance are driving collaborations to develop ways for patients and cancer survivors to better understand the importance of diet and physical activity in preventing cancer and enhancing survivorship.
Helmed by Basen-Engquist and Joya Chandra, Ph.D., associate professor of Pediatrics, the Center for Energy Balance fosters a transdisciplinary research environment by bringing scientists, physicians and investigators together to advance cancer prevention and survivorship-related interventions. This groundbreaking hub is helping MD Anderson scientists detect and decode the interconnections among obesity, cancer and decreased survival rates after diagnosis.
“Our work cuts across disciplines and brings together researchers at MD Anderson working on multiple aspects of diet and exercise as related to cancer prevention,” says Chandra.
The center is focused on providing its partnering researchers with state-of-the science opportunities to solve unanswered questions: Does exercise increase drug efficacy? Can weight loss and exercise programs for cancer survivors reduce the risk of recurrence and help recovery after cancer?
“Along with rising incidence of cancer connected to obesity, there also is an ever-increasing population of survivors worldwide, thanks to better methods of detection and care,” says Basen-Engquist. “But survivors face an elevated risk of multiple negative health outcomes, risk that can be reduced by physical activity and healthy diet. Ultimately, we want to identify which specific exercise regimen, which nutritional intervention works best, for whom and for which cancer type.”
Philanthropy helps supplement funding for the center’s research and programmatic aims, such as strengthening interdisciplinary energy balance research through educational and collaborative offerings. The center also is developing novel online and mobile-device platforms to help improve the quality of life for cancer survivors, particularly those from medically underserved populations, by promoting physical activity and providing assistance on issues of cancer survivorship.
“Philanthropy is critical for the center because many of the activities we pursue are not sustainable by other means,” says Chandra. “We would like to provide larger amounts of seed funding for great ideas that are not yet fully developed, or provide access to a methodology that may be cost-prohibitive for a researcher. These are goals that philanthropy can help achieve.”
Via the Center for Energy Balance, MD Anderson is poised to deliver more high impact breakthroughs aimed at reducing the risk of obesity-related cancers through collaborative research, as well as prevent dramatic increases in cancer rates born from rising incidence of obesity.