A Weighty Problem

by Patricia McLoughlin

When the GP starts to ask about our food and alcohol consumption and whether we exercise regularly, we know that we need to lose the odd pound or twenty. We walk to work for a day or two, adjust the diet and perhaps join a local gym. Then, pressed for time, we jump in the car, grab a burger and forget the doctor’s kindly advice.

Yes, in theory we know that carrying too much weight is a significant health risk. In a decade or two we’ll worry about the effect on our heart but how often do we consider that being overweight is linked to the chances of suffering from cancer?

Research now suggests that around 6,000 women's cancers each year in the UK are linked with being overweight. The Million Women Study, the most extensive look at cancer risk in women, resulted in us being warned to watch our weight, exercise regularly and avoid, processed meats.

Funded by Cancer Research UK, the report highlighted evidence that being overweight is linked with six different types of common cancer. It looked at the factors surrounding 45,000 cancer cases in more than a million women over seven years.

Chief researcher Dr Gillian Reeves, of Oxford University, says, "We estimate that being overweight or obese accounts for around 6,000 out of a total 120,000 new cases of cancer each year among middle-aged and older women in the UK.”

She says that two thirds of these additional annual cancers due to excess weight or obesity would be cancers of the womb or breast.

The researchers matched Body Mass Index (BMI) against cancer incidence to identify the risk from being overweight and this showed that the relationship between BMI and cancer risk depended on a woman's stage in life. Being overweight increased the risk of breast cancer only after the menopause, and the risk of bowel cancer only before the menopause.

The percentage of adults who are obese has more or less doubled since the 1980s. Dr Ian Campbell, medical director of Weight Concern, said, "It's now clear that lifestyle impacts greatly on overall cancer risk. The message is clear: invest in a healthier lifestyle today and we can reap the benefits of reduced disease risk and longer life tomorrow."