Why Does Being Fat Increase Your Risk of Cancer?

Previous research has shown a link between cancer and obesity, and now a Norwegian research team says they think they know why. Plus, those same researchers say, this new ability to understand why obesity can raise your risk of cancer, especially cancerous tumors, may offer new insights into treating both conditions.


According to the press release announcing the study, “Obesity is the cause of approximately 500 000 new cancer cases each year – a number that is expected to grow as obesity rates continues to increase.”

Up until now, researchers weren’t quite sure how this happens. Some theories pointed to an overall reduction in the body’s immune system that may accompany obesity especially later in life, while others looked at the roll of metabolism and cancer.

Now, a research team from the University of Bergen focusing on the relationship between breast cancer and excessive body weight have zeroed in on a completely separate mechanism which they believe finally explains how obesity can dramatically increase the aggressiveness of cancer, particular cancerous tumors.


According to the press release, the University of Bergen research team has “demonstrated that lipids associated with obesity make cancer cells more aggressive and likely to form actual tumors.”

Specifically, they found that changing the environment around a cancerous cell from one found in a person of normal body weight to that of an obese body weight individual caused the cancerous cells to activate and adapt. That reaction, they say, is caused by something called palmitic acid, or PA, which is a lipid more prevalent in obese body types.

“Collectively, our findings demonstrate that obesity driven cellular adaptation to PA drives tumor initiation in the obese setting through activation of a [CCAAT/enhancer-binding protein beta (C/EBPB)] dependent transcriptional network,” reads the actual study, which is published in the journal Nature Communications.

Or, as Professor Nils Halberg, one of the authors on the study explains, “This means that even in the absence of new gene mutations, obesity increases the risk that tumors will form.”

The Debrief has previously reported on researchers using cancer to actually treat some medical conditions like paralysis or brain damage, while another study showed that a type of cancer treatment was giving recipients night vision. However, this is the first study to illuminate the mechanism behind increased cancer risk and obesity.


More work will need to be done to determine how this information can be useful in the treatment and prevention of cancer, especially in obese individuals. However, the researchers behind the study note that folks suffering from both conditions will likely benefit from this type of research.

“To scientifically dissect how these two complicated diseases interact has been extremely interesting and rewarding,” said Halberg. “Especially as this new understanding will enable researchers to design improved treatments for obese cancer patients.”

Follow and connect with author Christopher Plain on Twitter: @plain_fiction