Body Weight and Cancer Risk

Author: Marisa Healy, BSN, RN
Content Contributor: Allyson Distel, MPH
Last Reviewed: January 08, 2024

Being overweight has been linked to a higher risk of getting 13 different cancers:

  • Breast (after menopause).
  • Colon & rectum.
  • Esophagus.
  • Stomach.
  • Liver.
  • Gall bladder.
  • Pancreas.
  • Endometrium.
  • Ovary.
  • Kidney.
  • Prostate.
  • Thyroid.
  • Multiple myeloma.

How does too much body fat raise your risk of cancer?

Extra body fat leads to higher levels of some hormones and proteins that may cause cancer cells to grow. These are insulin, leptin, and estrogen, among others.

  • Fat cells can cause chronic inflammation (swelling), which is linked to increased cancer risk.
  • Research has also shown that people with extra fat around the waist (the “apple shape”), may be at higher risk because this fat causes even more cell growth, increasing the risk of cancer.

Bodyweight is measured using body mass index or BMI. BMI is based on your height and weight. The BMI chart classifies your body as underweight, healthy, overweight, or obese. This is a good place to start to figure out your body weight and see where you fall on the chart.

A healthy diet, regular physical activity, and keeping a healthy weight have been shown to lower cancer risk. These three things, called the prevention triangle, are important steps in cancer prevention. Not smoking is also important. A few studies have found that losing weight can help lower the risk of weight-related cancers. Studies about weight loss and cancer have been done with those who had bariatric (weight loss) surgery. In a sample of these patients, cancer death rates were lower than people who were obese and did not have surgery.

Losing weight is not easy. It takes a lot of effort to make big lifestyle changes. Seek support from friends, family, your healthcare providers, and weight loss programs. Look into websites or applications (apps) to track progress and motivate you.

Resources to learn more about how diet, physical activity, and weight are related to cancer:

References

Griggs, J. J., Mangu, P. B., Anderson, H., Balaban, E. P., Dignam, J. J., Hryniuk, W. M., ... & Shayne, M. (2012). Appropriate chemotherapy dosing for obese adult patients with cancer: American Society of Clinical Oncology clinical practice guideline. Journal of clinical oncology, 30(13), 1553-1561.

Kerr, J., Anderson, C., & Lippman, S. M. (2017). Physical activity, sedentary behaviour, diet, and cancer: an update and emerging new evidence. The Lancet Oncology, 18(8), e457-e471.

Lauby-Secretan, B., Scoccianti, C., Loomis, D., Grosse, Y., Bianchini, F., & Straif, K. (2016). Body fatness and cancer—viewpoint of the IARC Working Group. New England Journal of Medicine, 375(8), 794-798.

WCRF/AICR Continuous Update Project Database and Findings. AICR.

Yang, L., Drake, B. F., & Colditz, G. A. (2016). Obesity and other cancers. Journal of Clinical Oncology, 34(35), 4231-4237.

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