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National Cancer Institute

Weight Gain in African American Breast Cancer Survivors

Chanita Hughes Halbert, Ph.D.
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA

  • Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer diagnosed in African American women; they suffer from higher mortality, despite a lower incidence, than white women. More than one-half of breast cancer survivors (between 56 and 75 percent) gain weight after diagnosis; weight gain increases risk for cancer recurrence and also for other diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. African American women gain more weight after diagnosis than white or Asian women (13 lbs. compared to 6 lbs. and 1 lb., respectively), and African American women also are more likely to be obese or overweight at the time of diagnosis.
  • A recent study sought to evaluate the psychological and behavioral impact of posttreatment weight changes in African American breast cancer survivors and how sociocultural factors influence stress levels related to weight gain and coping processes. Initial analyses found that these women felt unhappy about their weight whether they gained or lost weight. Those who gained weight were unhappy they had gained a significant amount (average 16 lbs.) in a short time period; those who lost weight were unhappy because they associated weight loss with an increased risk of death from cancer.
  • Women attributed changes in their weight to treatments; eating more during and after treatment, in some cases to cope with stress; eating more high-fat or sweet foods; and spending more time at home. Women who lost weight attributed this to nausea, lack of appetite, and the effects of chemotherapy drugs on their sense of taste.
  • Strategies used by the women to cope with weight gain included exercise, especially more walking; changes in diet, including structured meal planning; and buying larger clothes to accommodate their larger size. Women who lost weight tended to wear layers of clothes to disguise their weight loss.

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