Body fatness, related biomarkers and cancer risk: an epidemiological perspective

Horm Mol Biol Clin Investig. 2015 May;22(2):39-51. doi: 10.1515/hmbci-2014-0043.


Higher body fatness is not only associated with a higher risk of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and coronary heart disease but also with certain types of cancer. The scope of this review is to summarize the epidemiological evidence for an association between body fatness and specific types of cancer and to outline the mediating role of obesity-related biomarkers in this context. Epidemiological studies have gathered convincing evidence that greater body fatness is associated with a higher risk of colorectal cancer, postmenopausal breast cancer, endometrial cancer, esophageal adenocarcinoma, renal cell carcinoma, and pancreatic cancer. Further, evidence for an association between higher body fatness and higher risk of ovarian cancer, advanced prostate cancer, and hepatocellular carcinoma is growing. Abdominal obesity is an independent risk factor for colorectal cancer beyond general obesity, whereas an independent role is less clear for other obesity-related cancer types. Epidemiological biomarker studies have shown that the positive association between body fatness and risk of cancer may be partly explained by hyperinsulinemia and altered concentrations in adipokines and sex-steroid hormones. In addition, obesity-associated low-grade inflammation plays a role in colorectal carcinogenesis. While epidemiology has contributed substantially to the understanding of the role of higher body fatness and related metabolic alterations in the development of cancer, further epidemiological biomarker studies are necessary to elucidate the complex interrelations between mediating pathways as well as to study novel pathways. Knowledge resulting from this research may help identify an obesity phenotype that is particularly strongly associated with cancer risk and thus pave the way for targeted prevention of cancer morbidity and mortality.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adipokines / metabolism
  • Adipose Tissue / metabolism*
  • Biomarkers / metabolism
  • Body Mass Index
  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Hyperinsulinism / complications*
  • Inflammation / metabolism
  • Insulin / metabolism
  • Neoplasms / epidemiology*
  • Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Obesity / metabolism*
  • Risk Factors
  • Somatomedins / metabolism


  • Adipokines
  • Biomarkers
  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones
  • Insulin
  • Somatomedins