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Obesity increases women’s cancer risk by 40%

March 2015: According to new figures published by leading cancer charity Cancer Research UK, obese women “have around a 40% greater risk of developing a weight-related cancer in their lifetime than women of a healthy weight”.

Obesity has been found to increase a woman’s risk of developing at least seven types of cancer – including bowel, post-menopausal breast, gallbladder, womb, kidney, pancreatic and oesophageal cancer.

Approximately a quarter of UK women are currently obese, and the new statistics reveal that these women have around a one in four risk of developing a cancer linked to weight in their lifetime. To put this into figures, in a group of 1,000 obese women, 274 will be diagnosed with a bodyweight-linked cancer in their lifetime, compared to 194 women diagnosed in a group of 1,000 healthy weight women. It is estimated that across the UK around 18,000 women develop cancer each year as a result of being overweight or obese.

It is not yet fully understood why obesity increases risk so significantly, but one possibility is that it is linked to a fat cell’s production of hormones – especially oestrogen, which is thought to fuel the development of certain cancers. It is also possible that individuals who are obese – and perhaps less health conscious – have other lifestyle habits that have an adverse effect on general health.

Dr Julie Sharp, head of health information at Cancer Research UK, said: “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.”

Gordon Wishart, professor of cancer surgery, consultant breast surgeon and Medical Director of Check4Cancer comments: “There are many lifestyle factors directly affecting cancer risk, and women face some particularly difficult challenges. Factors known to increase risk of breast cancer, for example, include having no children, or having them late in life (that is, after the age of 25) and not breast feeding. We know that many women put off having children, or decide not to have them at all, because of a desire or need to work. While these working patterns may be difficult for many women to change, they do help us ascertain who is in a higher risk group, and the fact that cancer testing is increasingly being implemented in the workplace can help to tip the balance in these women’s favour. Some risk factors, however, they can take direct control of right now. Obesity is certainly one of the most significant of these.”

Dr Julie Sharp adds: “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 favour. Losing weight isn’t easy, but you don’t have to join a gym and run miles every day or give up your favourite food forever. Just making small changes that you can maintain in the long term can have a real impact."

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