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This man's 'beer belly' turned out to be a 77-pound tumor

Korin Miller
Dr. William Tseng removed a 70-pound tumor from Hector Hernandez in July. (Photo: USC/Courtesy Hector Hernandez)

A California man is on the mend after having a 77-pound tumor removed from his abdomen that he thought was “just” a beer belly.

Hector Hernandez eventually went to the doctor this summer to get checked out. His friends teased him about his beer belly, even though he didn’t drink beer, and his stomach and weight didn’t seem to change when he exercised even though his arms were getting thinner, according to a news release from the University of Southern California, where he sought care. His stomach was also hard.

Hernandez was eventually diagnosed with a retroperitoneal liposarcoma, a cancer that starts in the fat cells at the back of the abdomen. He eventually had the tumor removed in a complicated six-hour operation, and a week later, he was more than 100 pounds lighter.

Hernandez is hardly the first person to write off his unexplained weight gain only to later find out that it was due to a tumor. In May, an Alabama woman had a 50-pound ovarian cyst removed that she initially thought was just due to weight gain, according to CNN. The internet is filled with stories like these. So, how can someone know if their weight gain is due to dietary or other issues versus a tumor?

“It is not always easy,” Margaret von Mehren, MD, chief of the Division of Sarcoma Medical Oncology and associate director of clinical research at Fox Chase Cancer Center, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “But some clues that this might be something different than just [regular] weight gain is that the weight gain is asymmetric or happening very fast.”

This kind of tumor usually doesn’t cause pain, “but patients can notice a change in their bowel habits (usually more sluggish) and feeling full more quickly,” von Mehren says. “Also when lying down, they might notice feeling uncomfortable in certain positions or having a sensation of fullness on one side.” A person’s clothes may also not fit the way they used to and may be tighter on one side than the other, she says. “It is possible that if a tumor is large, it may cause pressure on the blood vessels to the legs and there can be fluid retention of the legs. One should be concerned especially if there is swelling in one leg and not the other,” she adds.

“There’s no way in terms of symptoms to definitively say ‘This is due to cancer and this is not,’” John Mullinax, MD, a surgical oncologist in the Sarcoma Department at Moffitt Cancer Center, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Any unexplained change in weight should be checked out.”

Of course, there could be many other reasons why you’re gaining weight, including a thyroid condition, so it doesn’t hurt to check in with your primary care physician for a workup if you’ve noticed ongoing unexplained weight gain. “I would also seek medical attention if you feel the weight is going on one side and not the other, or you notice you are feeling full more quickly and truly are eating less food but continue to gain weight,” von Mehren says. “The challenge is that many of these tumors can be slow growing, so changes may not be obvious.”

Regardless, if you notice that something might be off, “don’t let things with your body that seem odd to you go by,” Mullinax advises. 

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