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The Facts on Weight Management and Cancer

Many pressing reasons exist to avoid being overweight or obese and, unfortunately, cancer is one of them. It has long been known that excess weight increases the risk of heart disease, stroke and type-2 diabetes. But, fewer people know about the frightening link between cancer and obesity. In a recent survey conducted by the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), only 25 percent were aware of the cancer-obesity association.

Yet science clearly demonstrates that obesity increases cancer risk. A recent report by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer estimates that being overweight and inactive accounts for one-fifth to one-third of all breast, colon, endometrial, kidney and esophageal cancers. In the U.S. alone, that estimate represents between 102,000 and 135,000 cases each year. Strong evidence also associates obesity with higher risk of cancers of the pancreas, uterus, prostate and ovary.

The Cancer-Obesity Link
Researchers predict that the epidemic growth in rates of obesity and overweight will cause cancer rates to soar 50 percent worldwide by 2020.

Why? Cancer is a complex disease, and many factors probably explain the increased cancer risk caused by excess weight. New findings suggest that fat cells constantly secrete a variety of hormones and other growth factors into the bloodstream. In obese and overweight individuals, greater amounts of these hormones and growth factors are continually pumped into the bloodstream. Cells are urged to grow and divide at an accelerated rate. Thus, according to this theory, the random mutations that can lead to cancer are more likely.

Are You at Risk?
How should you determine if you're at risk? Most of us know when we gain weight. Clothes no longer fit. The mirror becomes an irritating reminder, and the scale is permanently hidden under the bed.

Many of us, however, learn to overlook these signs. Fortunately, science currently offers two methods of assessing body weight. Neither is perfect, but they both tell you whether you need to take steps to control your weight and, consequently, lower your risk of cancer and other chronic diseases.
  1. Body Mass Index (BMI) is one common method used to measure overweight and obesity levels. This BMI chart shows the range of healthy and unhealthy weights for different heights. (BMI may not be an accurate indicator for athletes, the elderly, children or people less than 5 feet tall.)
  2. Waist Circumference is a second, complementary means of assessing possible risk due to excess body fat. Place a tape measure around your waist immediately above the tip of your hipbone. Measure right after exhaling. For women, a waist measurement of 35 inches or more indicates high risk. For men, the significant figure is 40 inches or more.
In most cases, the BMI and waist-to-hip measurements will confirm each other. But some people with a BMI of 30 or below whose waist measurement indicates high risk should consider themselves at high risk.

Practice Precaution
Even if both of your measurements show that you're in a healthy range, don't become complacent. In our modern society, eating temptations abound. Remember that the easiest way to manage overweight is to never let it happen. After reviewing the existing research on the subject, a panel of scientists assembled by AICR concluded that everyone should avoid being overweight. They suggest limiting weight gain during adulthood to 11 pounds in order to reduce the risk of cancer.

If your BMI or waist measurement indicates excess weight, it's time to take steps to lower your risk for cancer and other chronic diseases. Forget about previous, unsuccessful attempts. Aim for a modest reduction. Even the loss of a few pounds will reduce the risk of disease.

A Healthy, Longer Life
If you're concerned about lowering your cancer risk and avoiding other chronic diseases associated with excess body fat, you should be concerned about your weight. All adults who have a BMI above 24.9 are considered at risk for premature death and disability.

By gradually incorporating AICR's recommendations into your daily habits, you should be able to reach and maintain a healthier weight. That will mean reduced risk for chronic diseases, a greater sense of well being and the pleasure that comes from regular exercise and varied, healthy eating.

AICR Diet and Health Guidelines for Cancer Prevention
  1. Choose a diet rich in a variety of plant-based foods.
  2. Eat plenty of vegetables and fruits.
  3. Maintain a healthy weight and be physically active.
  4. Drink alcohol only in moderation, if at all.
  5. Select foods low in fat and salt
  6. Prepare and store foods safely.
And always remember...Do not use tobacco in any form.
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Member Comments

thanks Report
I am at risk and it is motivation to eat healthy every day, exercise, and keep losing the weight to get to where I want to be! Report
thank you Report
thanks Report
Great info--Thank yu Report
Way outdated and now quite inaccurate, consult National Institute of Health pub med. This may be DANGEROUS to circulate.. Report
It would be nice to see this updated, with an objective critique of current meta-analyses and being more clear on whether the "link" is correlation or proven causation.

As others have mentioned, correlation more likely indicates that there is another cause of both the obesity and the cancer - whether it be genetic or lifestyle or both. While genetics cannot be changed, altering the lifestyle for more activity, more nutritious foods, and less exposure to proven carcinogens should improve overall health, improve weight, and decrease the "risk" of cancer.

If there is evidence of excess weight actually causing one or more types of cancer, it would be good to see links to the actual studies. Report
First of all, this article was written 15 years ago!
There may be some valid points but there is a lot more too it, and it aggravates me that overweight is always blamed because it's "easy".
None of my friends/family who passed away from cancer were obese. One of them who died in his 50's of pancreatic cancer was slim his entire life and a vegetarian for his last 20 years; my mother, who died of kidney cancer at 86 was never overweight and had always been reasonably active. Report
Yes, it's true. Report
I didn't know this. Thanks! Report
Great information. Report
Get your screenings! Minimum of: Breast mammograms and self exam monthly. Gynecology pap smears every 2 years, Prostate for men. And if you smoked 20 years or more, a lung CT scan. Ask your dentist to check under your tongue for any lesions in your mouth. Get an overall annual wellness check, and ask about any unusual skin growths or lumps/bumps that don't go away. Don't ignore chronic diahhrea or belly pain, report it to your primary, and follow up with internal medicine at a cancer Center. You advocate for you, it's the Sparky way to live! Report
Great reason to eat healthy and exercise. Report
Great article. Report
Walking Guide

About The Author

The American Institute for Cancer Research
The American Institute for Cancer Research
The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) is a charity that has contributed more than $70 million for research on diet and cancer. AICR educates Americans how to make dietary changes to lower their cancer risk.