Over the past several years, the field of cancer research has directed increased interest towards subsets of obesity-associated tumours, which include mammary, renal, oesophageal, gastrointestinal and reproductive cancers in both men and women. The increased risk of breast cancer that is associated with obesity has been widely reported; this has drawn much attention and as such, warrants investigation of the key mechanisms that link the obese state with cancer aetiology. For instance, the obese setting provides a unique adipose tissue microenvironment with concomitant systemic endocrine alterations that favour both tumour initiation and progression. Major metabolic differences exist within tumours that distinguish them from non-transformed healthy tissues. Importantly, considerable metabolic differences are induced by tumour cells in the stromal vascular fraction that surrounds them. The precise mechanisms that underlie the association of obesity with cancer and the accompanying metabolic changes that occur in the surrounding microenvironment remain elusive. Nonetheless, specific therapeutic agents designed for patients with obesity who develop tumours are clearly needed. This Review discusses recent advances in understanding the contributions of obesity to cancer and their implications for tumour treatment.