Scientists Seek to Understand How Fat Causes Cancer

Susan Farley
Published Online: Friday, October 1, 2004

As the obesity epidemic continues to spread, researchers are determined to understand the fat cell and how it fuels the growth of tumors. Even before doctors uncover the mystery of the fat cell, however, it is clear that having extra fat makes cancer detection more difficult. Not only is it harder for physicians to spot recurrences and determine the best therapy for obese patients, but it also can be challenging for obese patients to fit properly into radiation machines as part of their treatment.

Beyond these obvious physical limitations, excess weight may be the cause of approximately 90,000 cancer deaths each year. The medical community has thus far focused primarily on obesity as a risk factor for heart disease and diabetes. The fact remains that fat increases the risk of cancer of the colon, breast, uterus, kidney, esophagus, pancreas, gallbladder, liver, and stomach. Weight is the biggest factor in uterine cancer?an overweight woman may be 5 times more likely to develop uterine cancer than a slender woman. Obese people also are 3 times more likely to develop kidney and esophageal cancer. Overweight and obese men may be twice as likely as lean men to develop colon cancer.

While researchers continue to investigate fat cells, they agree that abdominal fat is the most dangerous. This kind of visceral fat is metabolically active, causing a surge of insulin and proteins that can lead to abnormal cell growth. Fat cells also create estrogen, a component of breast cancer, and stomach acid from gastroesophageal reflux, a disorder common among obese people, can lead to esophageal cancer. Whereas heart disease and diabetes remain primary concerns for researchers trying to understand the range of obesity's ill effects, the effect fat has on cancer is an important area of concern.

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