How High Cholesterol Levels May Impact Your Cancer Risk – Healthline

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Eating a low cholesterol diet may help your heart and overall health. Ivan Gener/Stocksy United
  • A new study found that cholesterol may be a key component in cancer cells becoming more resilient and able to metastasize.
  • Cancer cells become “stressed” when they try to metastasize and spread from the original cancer site. Often, they die before they can migrate.
  • Researchers now say high levels of cholesterol may help cancer cells survive this stressful process.

You may be aware that high levels of “bad” cholesterol have negative health effects, like increasing risk of heart attack and stroke.

But a recent study suggests that high cholesterol levels can also be associated with an increased chance of spreading breast cancer, as well as worse outcomes for many other cancers.

The new study, led by senior author Donald P. McDonnell, PhD, found that cholesterol levels were linked to cancer cells becoming more resilient.

Specifically, the researchers looked at how some cancer cells are able to overcome stressors in the body that would normally result in cell death.

In the new study, researchers at the Duke University College of Medicine’s department of pharmacology and cancer biology are now able to explain how breast cancer cells use cholesterol to develop a tolerance against stress.

Cancer cells become “stressed” when they try to metastasize and spread from the original cancer site. Often, they die before they can migrate.

“Most cancer cells die as they try to metastasize — it’s a very stressful process,” McDonnell said in a statement.

However, some cells that do not die when they migrate lead to other tumors growing in other parts of the body.

Understanding why some cells can evade this stress — and therefore cell death — may help researchers better treat cancer.

“The few that don’t die have this ability to overcome the cell’s stress-induced death mechanism,” McDonnell said. “We found that cholesterol was integral in fueling this ability.”

As cancerous cells begin to grow and increase in number, it’s thought that those cells that are resistant to cell death will likely create additional cells that are resistant to this process as well.

McDonnell explained that it’s quite likely that the cells that are resistant to this cell death process are unique, and when they multiply, they’ll create other cells that have these same properties.

This research team had previously discovered a link between high cholesterol and estrogen-positive breast and gynecologic cancers.

They found that cancers that used estrogen could thrive from cholesterol components — some of which are like estrogen — resulting in cancer growth.

They then found that cancers not dependent on estrogen also had increased spread with high cholesterol, but the mechanism was not understood.

“Unraveling this pathway has highlighted new approaches that may be useful for the treatment of advanced disease,” said McDonnell.

While much of the previous research involved breast and other gynecologic cancers, it appears that this same cholesterol-enhanced process can also be seen in other types of tumors and cancers like melanoma.

Cholesterol is a fat-like substance that helps your body make some hormones and substances to help digest food.

Not all cholesterol is “bad.”

There are two forms of cholesterol — one is high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and the other is low-density lipoprotein (LDL). HDL is commonly called “good” cholesterol because it takes cholesterol to the liver in order to expel it from the body. LDL is called “bad” because the cholesterol is stored as fat.

The body makes all the cholesterol it needs for these positive functions, so excess cholesterol gets stored as fat.

In cases when there’s too much cholesterol in the body, such as through smoking, lack of physical activity, and certain eating habits, it can lead to negative health issues such as heart attacks and strokes.

Dr. Wasif Saif, medical oncologist and Deputy Physician-in-Chief and medical director at Northwell Health Cancer Institute in Lake Success, New York, said people with high cholesterol levels are at increased risk of “developing cancer such as colon, rectal, prostatic, and testicular cancer.”

Similarly, those with a higher BMI may also have an increased risk of endometrial, esophageal, liver, kidney, pancreatic, gallbladder, and even breast cancer.

McDonnell believes that cholesterol-lowering medications should be involved in the treatment of cancer.

“All of the data we have generated in the past 10 years working on this topic, and considering work from other laboratories, it is clear that cholesterol is bad,” said McDonnell.

Statins are the most commonly used prescription medications to lower cholesterol levels. But some research has shown the people on statins may also be less likely to develop certain forms of cancer.

Currently, it’s not well understood if this is because of the preventive effects of statins, or another aspect of the medications and cancer growth.

Experts are studying the relationship to understand if statins could someday be used as a preventive cancer treatment.

“In addition to be proven as a game changer in preventing cardiovascular disease, there is [an] emerging wealth of knowledge that suggests these drugs may also protect against cancers, notably colorectal cancer [and] prostate cancer,” said Saif.

Experts say more research is needed before statins are officially recommended to lower cancer risk.

Larger studies need to be conducted to prove their benefit and overall safety — especially as many cholesterol and cancer medications all use the liver for metabolism.

Statins can increase the risk of toxicity of the liver.

Although it’s too early to make formal recommendations for cholesterol-lowering medications in preventing the spread of cancers, this research brings new light to another reason why you should lower your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.

While healthy eating habits, regular exercise, and lowering LDL cholesterol may benefit cancer prevention, it’s well known that these habits can also improve your overall life, longevity, and prevent other serious health issues.

Rajiv Bahl, MD, MBA, MS, is an emergency medicine physician and health writer. You can find him at