Academics from Dundee University say doctors and nurses should be trained to offer patients crucial information about the link between obesity and cancer.
The study, which is being presented today at the National Cancer Research Institute Cancer Conference in Liverpool, found that patients who had been through diagnosis and treatment for bowel cancer had been given little guidance on post-treatment diet, physical activity or weight management.
Report author Professor Annie Anderson of Dundee University called the issue “the elephant in the room”.
The academic, who runs the institution’s centre for public health and nutrition, said: “We’re missing key opportunities to provide crucial information to the people who need it most. Obesity is having a huge impact on cancer incidence worldwide. If we are to tackle the rising cancer incidence, we must do all we can to combat obesity.”
The study explored how acceptable it is to offer advice about weight loss through changing diet and physical activity for people who had been treated for pre-cancerous polyps which had been detected through bowel screening. Further research also showed that health care professionals felt uncomfortable about discussing diet and lifestyle with their patients and did not necessarily see it as their role.
Ms Anderson said patients wanted “specific information given in a sensitive way”. She added: “There needs to be a bit of sensitive handling. They don’t want the doctor to wade in and say, ‘you’re over-weight, do something about it’.
“Cancer doctors and nurses need better training in how to approach this sensitive subject. And for patients, who have already been treated for bowel cancer and are overweight, the slate needs to be wiped and they should be advised and supported to eat a healthy diet and take exercise to stack the odds against the cancer returning. It’s an elephant in the room, nobody quite knows when to deal with it or how to deal with it and we need to unpick that.”
Royal College of Nursing Scotland Director Theresa Fyffe said conversations with patients can be “sensitive and complex”.
She added: “Nurses and other healthcare professionals need to possess excellent communication skills and have the right knowledge about cancer and the extra risk posed by, for example, being obese, so patients are not put off from acting on advice.
“Nurses and other healthcare professionals should be given the opportunity to develop the skills they need to have these difficult conversations and support patients to make the choices that will give them best chance of remaining healthy.”