Obesity and cancer: now the relationship is a little clearer, what can we change?

Obesity and cancerCC: RawPixel at Unsplash

As the second highest preventable cause of cancer behind smoking, being overweight leads to millions of deaths each year. Until recently, the link between obesity and cancer was unclear. Yesterday, fresh research from Trinity College in Dublin made the relationship a little clearer.

So, what is the link between obesity and cancer?

Until recently, the best explanation experts could present for the link between obesity and cancer was that fat cells send damaging signals to other cells. As a theory that’s difficult to absorb to some, its existence hasn’t done much to raise awareness of the ways fat increases your cancer risk.

The latest research from Trinity College suggests that our fat cells clog the immune system’s cancer-fighting cells. Our cells are constantly changing, with some areas experiencing more changes than others. For example, while your skin will replace itself every 27 days, nerve cells regenerate so slowly that severing them can result in paralysis.

As part of this process, your cells rely on their powerhouses to relay information regarding DNA rapidly. When mutations occur, the immune system usually catches them and deletes them. If what the researchers at Trinity College say is true, obesity and cancer are interlinked because all of those fat cells are holding the immune system back.

Are there any other ways that being overweight could cause cancer?


Absolutely! For example, one of the more established connections between obesity and cancer is the way fat cells encourage the production of estrogens. While women (and to an extent, men) depend on normal estrogen production, too much causes a host of issues. Some of the more female cancers, such as breast metastasis, will amplify rapidly in the presence of too much estrogen. Alongside other risk factors, this is bad news for
those who are overweight.

So, what’s the next stage now that we know more about obesity and cancer?

First of all, this research raises hopes that the pharmaceutical world could develop a drug that interrupts this process. However, seeing as obesity is linked to more conditions than just cancer, it’s probably better to not take a ‘closing the stable door once the horse has bolted’ approach.

That brings us to the most obvious statement out there: try to avoid putting on weight to the extent that you tip into the upper levels of a BMI chart. Or, if you prefer to strive for accuracy, avoid having a body fat percentage that’s too high.

If you are overweight, you’re probably well-versed in weight loss lectures. However, if telling people to lose weight alone was effective, obesity rates wouldn’t be reaching the levels they’re currently at. At the same time, it’s important not to throw our hands up and ignore the issue because so few people are managing to tackle it in the age of information.

For now, not ignoring issues such as the rising cost of healthy food, rare conditions such as food addiction, and increasingly sedentary lifestyles could help. Alongside a dose of personal responsibility, reducing society’s unhealthy weight gain could become possible.

About the Author

Laura McKeever
Laura has been a freelance medical writer for eight years. With a BSc in Medical Sciences and an MSc in Physician Assistant Studies, she complements her passion for medical news with real-life experiences. Laura’s most significant experience included writing for international pharmaceutical brands, including GSK.