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Can weight-loss surgery help cut cancer risks?

A woman talks with her health care provider during an office visit.

Feb. 20, 2023—Weight-loss surgery helps many people live their best lives. It can improve—or even reverse—some medical problems related to excess weight. But questions remained about the effects of weight-loss surgery and risk for certain types of cancer. Now, a new study offers reassuring news.

Esophageal and gastric cancers are linked to obesity, which weight-loss surgery helps to treat. But they are also linked to a severe heartburn problem called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). And some types of bariatric surgery may raise the risk for GERD.

So are people at higher risk for these cancers after they have bariatric surgery? They are not, suggests a new study in JAMA Surgery. In fact, the reverse may be true. The study suggests that weight-loss surgery can help protect against gastric and esophageal cancer. And this protection may offset any raised risks of GERD.

Weighing the risks

Studies show that weight-loss surgery is safe and that it works. But, like other surgeries, weight-loss surgery has both risks and benefits.

One possible risk—especially after a type of surgery called sleeve gastrectomy—is that some people may develop GERD. Weight-loss surgeries are also linked to bile acid reflux, another possible risk factor for gastric and esophageal cancers.

But obesity is also a major risk factor for these cancers. And, according to the National Cancer Institute, weight-loss surgery has already been linked to a lower risk for weight-related cancers, including colon cancer and breast cancer.

Researchers wondered whether the weight loss people experience after surgery lowered the risk for gastric and esophageal cancers more than the possibility of GERD raised it.

To find out more, the study authors looked at data on nearly 1 million people. Researchers tracked the participants for an average of six years. They compared two groups:

  • More than 300,000 adults who had bariatric surgery.
  • More than 600,000 adults who did not have weight-loss surgery.

All of these people had severe obesity. And none of them had cancer when they entered the study.

Here’s what the researchers found. There were 337 new cases of esophageal or gastric cancers during the study. Of these cancers:

  • 254 were in the control group.
  • 83 were in the bariatric surgery group.

The risk of cancer was 42% higher in the group that didn’t have surgery. And it indicates that weight-loss surgery may lower the risk for these cancers more than it raises it.

Could bariatric surgery be right for you?

Bariatric surgery may be an option for people with obesity and weight-related health problems. It may help prevent or control conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure or sleep apnea. And it can boost a person’s quality of life.

Weight-loss surgery is not right for everyone. Ask your doctor about the pros and cons of weight-loss surgery and how it might affect your health. Our interactive assessment can help you get the conversation started.


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