Body weight linked to ovarian cancer for first time

11 March 2014

Scientists have linked ovarian cancer – the most deadly gynaecological cancer in the UK – to being overweight for the first time.

World Cancer Research Fund International announced the finding after researchers working on the organisation’s Continuous Update Project (CUP) discovered the link between body weight and the UK’s fifth most common cancer among women.

Dr Rachel Thompson, Head of Research Interpretation, said: “We can now say with certainty that being overweight or obese increases the risk of developing ovarian cancer, just as it does with a number of other cancers such as breast, bowel and womb cancer.

“This means that women can make lifestyle changes to reduce their chances of getting ovarian cancer. Previously we only knew about risk factors that are fixed, such as age and family history of the disease, but now we can say that keeping to a healthy weight helps reduce the risk of getting ovarian cancer.”

There are around 7,100 cases of ovarian cancer in the UK every year and around 4,300 deaths from the disease. The low survival rate is mainly due to late diagnosis – five-year survival rates are more than 90 per cent if diagnosed early but when caught in the late stage of the disease survival rates are lower than ten per cent.

In the UK, 61 per cent of adults (57 per cent of women) are overweight or obese, placing them at an increased risk of developing one of eight cancers. It is estimated that one in six cases – a total of 23,400 cases – could be prevented in the UK every year if everyone was a healthy weight (a BMI of between 18.5 and 25). World Cancer Research Fund International recommends checking your BMI regularly to see if you are a healthy weight.

Dr Kate Allen, Executive Director of Science and Public Affairs at World Cancer Research Fund International, said: “These latest findings from the Continuous Update Project show how important body weight is for an increasing number of cancers affecting both men and women. This is just one example of how this resource, the largest of its kind in the world, is helping define public health advice to all of us on how we can reduce our risk of cancer.”

The CUP monitors and analyses research on cancer prevention and draws conclusions on how lifestyle factors such as weight, diet and physical activity can reduce the risk of developing cancer. A panel of independent experts assesses if the scientific evidence has changed and if this impacts on the 10 Recommendations for Cancer Prevention. It has so far reported on breast, bowel, pancreatic, womb (endometrial) and ovarian cancer.

The ovarian cancer review analysed 25 studies involving 4million women, 16,000 of whom developed ovarian cancer. The studies showed there is a dose-response of a six per cent increased risk of developing ovarian cancer for every five extra BMI units.

Notes to editors:

  • Further information on the CUP here.
  • The cancers linked to being overweight or obese are: ovarian, bowel, post-menopausal breast, endometrial, oesophageal, kidney, pancreatic and gall bladder.
  • Overweight = BMI of 25 to 30 Obese = BMI over 30
  • Data from the Anglia Cancer Network for women diagnosed 2004-08 shows five-year relative survival rates at 92 per cent for Stage I ovarian cancer and 5.6 per cent at Stage IV. Around two-thirds of cases were diagnosed at Stage III and IV.