Health officials connect obesity to breast cancer

By Jody Chapin -bio | email

SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - National Breast Cancer Awareness Month is celebrating 25 years of spreading the word about the importance of early detection. With the disease affecting one in eight women it's important to know your risks when it comes to breast cancer.

The Big Red 11 is going pink as Memorial doctors help us all understand more about breast cancer. Some of the risk factors we can't control, like family history and genetics but others, like keeping up with our screenings and controlling our weight we can control.

You don't have to tell the students at White Bluff Elementary to stay active. They enjoy it.  P.E.  teacher Mary Ellen Mulligan makes working out fun because she knows it's important for them now and for their futures.

"It lessens their chance of diabetes, obesity and several other childhood disease," says Mulligan.

New research is showing that, especially for women, obesity can be a high risk factor for all cancers including breast cancer.

"The risk is higher in women who gain that weight as an adult," says Savannah breast surgeon, Dr. Paul DeNitto with the Anderson Cancer Institute's Center for Breast Care.

Mary Ellen is a breast cancer survivor actually just a few months out of treatment.

"I had a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction and 16 weeks of aggressive chemo," said Mulligan.

She's always been active and never had a weight problem and to avoid the risk of the cancer returning she doesn't want that to change.

"Women who had breast cancer who are obese, their risk for recurrence is higher," says Dr. DeNitto. "It all boils down to the excess fatty tissue. Their estrogen levels are going to be higher. It's not that estrogen by itself causes breast cancer but there are a lost of breast cancers that are estrogen sensitive so the estrogen can accelerate the growth."

Mary Ellen recently completed Memorial's Strength for Survivors program as part of a group supported by the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

"They sponsored 25 women," says Katy Keyes, coordinator for the program. "She had surgery, so we were trying to increase her range of motion from the surgery incision and we were able to increase her grip strength."

"Physically, emotionally and mentally I felt stronger," said Mulligan. "It kind of re-powered me to come back to work, come back to do what I love the most, to teach P.E. to young children."

Mary Ellen has a family history of breast cancer as well and she has two daughters, ages 21 and 16 who have already started with self-breast exams and will start with screening mammograms probably in their early 20's.

For more information on the Komen Foundation grant in the Strength for Survivors program visit

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