The more a woman weighs, the greater her risk of ovarian cancer, a new report suggests.
It adds to strong suspicions that weight is somehow linked to ovarian cancer, one of the deadliest cancers and one that kills 14,000 U.S. women every year. And it adds ovarian cancer to a list of cancers affected by obesity or body fat, including breast cancer, colon cancer, endometrial cancer, kidney cancer and pancreatic cancer.
There’s also a link with height, the American Institute for Cancer Research reports.
A team at the AICR looked at 25 studies with data on 4 million women, 16,000 of whom developed ovarian cancer.
“Greater body fatness is a probable cause of ovarian cancer in women,” the report concludes.
“This is an important finding because it shows a way for women to reduce their chances of getting ovarian cancer,” said Dr. Elisa Bandera of the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, who helped write the study. “There is so much we don't know about preventing ovarian cancer, but now we can tell women that keeping to a healthy weight can help protect against this deadly disease.”
Both the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute list obesity as a suspected cause of ovarian cancer.
But the AICR report suggests that a woman doesn’t have to be obese — with a BMI of 30 or greater — for the risk to start growing. Even overweight women have a higher risk, the data suggests, starting at a BMI of about 28, which is considered overweight but not quite obese. (There’s a BMI calculator here).
There are many reasons why fat may raise cancer risk. Fat cells secrete estrogen, a hormone that can help fuel cancer, and people who are overweight or obese have overall higher levels of inflammation, which can affect heart disease and cancer risk alike. Fat cells produce other hormones, such as leptin and growth factors, that may affect the out-of-control cell growth that underlies cancer.
It’s also possible that something else is driving both body growth and cancer — perhaps a genetic cause. And growth factors may explain the link with height - which is of course something a woman cannot do anything about.
The AICR report looked for evidence of other causes of ovarian cancer but could not find enough evidence to implicate any specific foods such as eggs, milk, coffee, tea, meat, fats or vitamins.
First published March 10 2014, 9:23 PM
Maggie Fox is senior health writer for NBC News and TODAY, writing top news on health policy, medical treatments and disease.
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She's a former managing editor for healthcare and technology at National Journal and global health and science editor for Reuters based in Washington, D.C. and London.
She's reported for news agencies, radio, newspapers, magazines and television from across Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe covering news ranging from war to politics and, of course, health and science. Her reporting has taken Maggie to Lebanon, Syria and Libya; to China, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and Pakistan; to Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia and to Ireland and Northern Ireland and across the rest of Europe.
Maggie has won awards from the Society of Business Editors and Writers, the National Immunization Program, the Overseas Press Club and other organizations. She's done fellowships at Harvard Medical School, the National Institutes of Health and the University of Maryland.