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Cancer and body weight, what’s the link?

Excess body fat (especially fat around the waist and vital organs) can increase the release of harmful chemicals and hormones into the body. It may also lead to inflammation. This environment makes it more likely for cells to divide abnormally, which increases the risk of developing cancer cells.

There’s strong evidence that having more body fat increases the risk of 13 cancers, including cancers of the bowel, breast (post-menopausal), uterus/ endometrium and oesophagus. It is estimated that carrying extra weight was linked to approximately 3.4 per cent of cancers in Australia in 2010.

However, not everyone with a high body weight is unhealthy, and not everyone with lower body weight is healthy. Eating well and being physically active are behaviours that will reduce cancer risk, regardless of a person’s body weight.

What increases/decreases the risk?

The causes of weight gain are complex and can be out of the control of individuals. These include limited access to healthy foods and spaces that allow for physical activity, medications that promote weight gain and aggressive marketing of unhealthy foods and drinks by the processed food industry.

Creating healthier neighbourhoods will give us all opportunities to thrive. Some groups have less access to healthy food and opportunities to be active, including people living in remote and regional areas, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people, and people living in areas of disadvantage.

Cancer Council WA is working behind the scenes to advocate for environments that support healthy lifestyles.

To give you an idea about how your body weight might affect your cancer risk, you can use a BMI calculator or measure your waist. These measures do not specifically measure body fat, but can help you understand how this risk factor might affect you. To get a more in-depth health picture, make time to speak to your GP or other registered health professionals.

Reduce your risk

Research shows that long term weight-loss is challenging, and we know that many people have had a lot of experience losing weight and regaining it. We recommend focussing on healthy habits that will reduce cancer risk. Some of these habits (like eating well and moving more) can help you avoid weight gain, maintain a healthy weight or lose weight. It’s important to remember that they have benefits, even if they don’t lead to weight change.

If you have a cancer diagnosis

If you have a cancer diagnosis, you may have additional concerns or challenges related to your nutrition, physical activity or body weight. Cancer Council WA has a number of resources and programs that can help. You can find them here, or call Cancer Council WA’s 13 11 20 Information and Support Service.

Cancer Council WA resources