October 3rd, 2009

Number of Obesity-related Cancers Is Growing


In 2008, excess body weight was responsible for over 124,000 new cancer diagnoses in Europe. These results were presented at a major European cancer conference.

Obesity is increasingly being recognized as a risk factor not only for cancer development, but also for worse outcomes after cancer treatment. Links between obesity and endometrial cancer, postmenopausal breast cancer, and colorectal cancer are well established, but the effects of obesity appear to extend to several other types of cancer as well. According to the results of a large study conducted by the American Cancer Society, women with the highest BMIs were more likely than women with a healthy BMI to die of cancers of the gallbladder, pancreas, kidney, cervix, and ovary, as well as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The researchers estimated that 90,000 cancer deaths per year could be prevented if Americans maintained a healthy weight.[1]

BMI is a commonly used (though imperfect) measure of body size. It involves a comparison of weight to height (weight in kilograms divided by height in meters squared). A BMI between 18.5 and 24.9 is generally considered healthy, a BMI between 25 and 29.9 is considered overweight, and a BMI of 30 or higher is considered obese.

To explore the impact of excess body weight on cancer trends in Europe, researchers collected information from a number of different sources including the World Health Organization and the International Agency for Research on Cancer.[2] Excess body weight was defined a BMI of 25 or higher.

  • In 2002, as estimated 70,000 cancer diagnoses in Europe were due to excess body weight.
  • By 2008, this number was projected to be more than 124,000. Excess body weight accounted for 3.2% of all new cancer diagnoses in men and 8.6% of all new cancer diagnoses in women.
  • Endometrial (uterine) cancer, postmenopausal breast cancer, and colorectal cancer were the most common weight-related cancers. These three cancer types accounted for 65% of all cancers due to excess body weight.

The researchers note that these estimates are conservative, and that the actual number of obesity-related cancers is likely to be higher.

According to Dr. Andrew Renehan, the lead author of the study, “As more people stop smoking and fewer women take hormone replacement therapy, it is possible that obesity may become the biggest attributable cause of cancer in women within the next decade.”


[1] Calle EE, Rodriguez C, Walker-Thurmond K, Thun MJ. Overweight, obesity, and mortality from cancer in a prospectively studied cohort of U.S. adult. New England Journal of Medicine. 2003;348:1625-38

[2] Renehan A. Obesity and overall cancer risk. Presented at the Joint ECCO 15-34th ESMO Multidisciplinary Congress. Berlin, Germany, September 20-24, 2009. Abstract I-327.

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