The Grapevine

Obese Women 40% More Likely To Get Cancer: Why Tumor Cells Thrive On Fat

Obesity Cancer Risk
Women are at a higher risk of cancer if they're obese. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Obesity means carrying more than just excessively unhealthy weight around; it increases a person’s chances for developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and one of the most common diagnoses of them all — cancer. The numbers have been crunched, and the Cancer Research UK has announced a life-threateningly high calculation of risk for cancer. Obese women have a 40 percent greater risk for developing at least seven different types of cancer, including bowel, post-menopausal breast, gall bladder, womb, kidney, pancreatic, and esophageal cancer.

"I knew I had to do something about changing my lifestyle, so I began eating more healthy and exercising — I felt better and better," 35-year-old working mother Tracey Tanner said in a press release. "I've made other healthy changes, too, giving up fizzy drinks and junk food. I've slowly worked myself up to take part in 'Race for Life' and am now in training for my first marathon, which will be a huge milestone for me."

The research team studied 1,000 obese women, and 274 were diagnosed with a weight-related cancer in their lifetime. Next, they looked at a group of 1,000 healthy, normal weight women and found only 194 were diagnosed with a cancer at some point during their lifetime. Researchers believe the reason they’re at a higher risk is because of how the white fat cells produce excess amounts of female hormones, such as estrogen. Fat cells produce hormones called “adipokines,” which can help or stop cell growth, according to the National Cancer Institute. But because obese people have more of the hunger hormone leptin, it works to stimulate and promote cell growth — literally feeding cancer cells.

"We know that our cancer risk depends on a combination of our genes, our environment, and other aspects of our lives, many of which we can control — helping people understand how they can reduce their risk of developing cancer in the first place remains crucial in tackling the disease," Dr. Julie Sharp, head of health information at Cancer Research UK, said in a press release. "Lifestyle changes — like not smoking, keeping a healthy weight, eating a healthy diet, and cutting back on alcohol — are the big opportunities for us all to personally reduce our cancer risk. Making these changes is not a guarantee against cancer, but it stacks the odds in our favor."

In line with the United Kingdom, a majority of Americans and the rest of the world’s average citizen are overweight or obese. There are 78.6 million obese adults in the United States alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and nearly half of them are women. Millions are at risk for preventable cancers, stacking the chips high against an unhealthy population of women. Weight loss and lifetime management is the only solution to successfully stay out of the high-risk obese population.

"Losing weight isn't easy, but you don't have to join a gym and run miles every day or give up your favorite food forever," Sharp said. "Just making small changes that you can maintain in the long-term can have a real impact. To get started, try getting off the bus a stop earlier and cutting down on fatty and sugary foods. Losing weight takes time, so gradually build on these to achieve a healthier lifestyle that you can maintain. And find out about local services, which can provide help and support to make lifestyle changes over the long-term."

Source: Sharp J. Cancer Research UK. 2015.

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