Can losing weight help breast cancer patients survive? Fitbit joins study to find out.

National Cancer Institute

Scientists are recruiting thousands of women for a large clinical trial to find out if weight loss should be prescribed as a treatment for breast cancer in some patients.

The trial will put obese and overweight women who are 18 and older and recently diagnosed with breast cancer on diets and track exercise to see if losing a little weight could help prevent a cancer recurrence.

Fitbit, the physical activity monitoring gadget, is teaming up with Dana Farber for the study.

Here is the April 27 press release:

To help study investigators closely track activity and weight loss among study participants, each participant will receive a Fitbit Charge HRTM fitness tracker that delivers all-day activity tracking and continuous, wrist-based heart rate tracking. Participants will also receive a Fitbit Aria® Wi-Fi Smart Scale that tracks weight, BMI, lean mass and body fat percentage over time and wirelessly syncs to the Fitbit online or mobile dashboard to help users stay on track towards goals. Lastly, participants will also have access to FitStarTM by Fitbit premium software, which offers personalized video-based exercise experiences on mobile devices.

“It will be a challenge to help hundreds of women lose weight without actually ever meeting them face-to-face,” says [breast oncologist Dr. Jennifer] Ligibel. “Fitbit products will allow coaches to see how participants are doing in terms of meeting their weight, physical activity and caloric goals, and step in when women need extra support to stay on track.”

A false-color, scanning-electron microscope image of a breast cancer cell

A false-color, scanning-electron microscope image of a breast cancer cell

Maintaining a healthy weight and getting regular exercise were two of the most important things I was told I could do to help improve my breast cancer survival odds, and both are seen as good advice. But there isn't a clear understanding of how having a heavier body weight is connected to the metabolic or immune functions that fight the proliferation of cancer cells. In other words, we know it's all connected, but we don't know exactly how.

This is a harder issue for breast cancer patients than it is for people who are not being treated for the disease. Some of the treatments we get, including hormone therapy for those of us with hormone-receptive cancer, are either proven to cause or to be strongly correlated with unwanted weight gain.

Many past studies have shown some kind of link between weight and breast cancer mortality, but none of these were designed to determine whether weight loss after diagnosis improves survival or reduces recurrence odds.

From the New York Times:

“Nobody understands biologically why that is,” Dr. Ligibel said, adding that researchers will be collecting blood samples throughout the trial to track metabolic changes that occur with weight loss. Exercise is also part of the program, and participants will work with health coaches. Fitbit is donating all the products that will be used to track their activity and weight.

The researchers will look at markers of inflammation and metabolism, including levels of insulin, insulinlike growth factor and hormones that regulate fat storage.

“There’s a physiology of obesity that happens in everybody, but many of the changes we see in obesity actually are factors that influence the growth of cancer,” said Dr. Pamela Goodwin, one of the study’s investigators and a professor of medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.

These changes include higher insulin and glucose levels, inflammation and an increase in certain proteins, all of which appear to fuel cancer growth, Dr. Goodwin said.

Obesity “makes a great environment for cancer to get a foothold and progress,” said Barbara Gower, a professor of nutrition at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who is running a small short-term trial to see what happens when women with ovarian cancer remove all sugar and starches from their diet.