pic of jeans with a measuring tape

How losing as little as 10% body fat can make a big difference in the fight against cancer.

Pen Orla Dolan Glasses 4 min read

If you are anything like me, you already know that being overweight is not good for our bodies. Taking the step from knowing that and doing something about it, is where we fall down. I recently had the good fortune to go out with a team of scientists and dieticians involved in cancer research and to listen to them present research evidence about how fat impacts on cancer. It was a shocking revelation to me but also an empowering one. 


Now I used to think of fat in two ways.. one was linked to problems with diabetes and cardiac disease, even issues with joints. I thought of the other by it’s impact on my ability to buy a nice pair of skinny jeans, or straight skirt or how it influenced whether I wanted to peel off when on holidays.  Knowing that, was I really doing something about it?….No!

Then came that shocking discovery that there is more than one type of fat. While one concerns that “wonderful” padding, the other fat, called visceral fat, (the one that sits on your belly) is actually very metabolically active and pumps out hormones and chemicals which actually can promote cancer growth and dramatically increase your risk of getting cancer.  That was a shocking discovery for me. I did not know that this fat was like a hormone pump and those hormones were dramatically increasing my cancer risk. So now the stakes were higher. It wasn’t about looking better but getting better.  Working to decrease those bad chemicals going around my body.

But there was good news too, well certainly empowering news anyway.  And that was that just a 10% weight loss would see these dangerous hormones/chemical levels decrease immediately.  And it is the belly fat that is lost first (when you start to eat better and exercise more). The dangerous bad fat goes first, so even when you can’t immediately see it on the scales, or in your clothes, you know it’s worth sticking with because you are taking a huge step to decreasing your cancer risk.

The evidence doesn’t lie - there is a proven link between body fatness, inactivity and certain cancers. Being overweight and inactive accounts for 1/4 to 1/3 of worldwide cases of colon, kidney, oesophageal, breast and endometrial cancer (WHO IARC, 2013).  In fact up to 71% of oesophageal, 47% Colorectal, 38% Breast, 32% Kidney and 9% Advanced Prostate can be prevented by appropriate food nutrition, physical activity and body fatness. 

So the data is clear it is time to tackle that belly (visceral) fat and good nutrition and more physical activity is the way to go.  Visceral fat is a highly active metabolic organ secreting a vast array of hormones and growth factors involved in insulin resistance, appetite control and systemic inflammation.  This inflammation can lead to cancer but we can do something about it.  It’s not just sitting there to annoy us, but in a way its poisoning our system and therefore we should do something about it.

It all sounded a bit scary at first but ultimately this information became empowering.  Knowing that just 10% weight loss could have an enormous impact and the bad fat goes first was, for me anyway, motivating.  I can do something for my own health and it doesn’t mean I am trying to match some idea of what all people should look like, as depicted on the cover of some magazine.  I can be just a healthier version of me.

That’s why I now know that 10% could make all the difference….for all of us!


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Orla Dolan

Orla Dolan is a graduate of University College Cork and University of Limerick’s Kemmy Business School. She started her career as a scientist and then went on to work in Human Resources specifically in Workforce Development and HR systems in the Social and Health Sectors in the United States. While in Delta-T Group, a Mental Health, Behavioural Health, Social Service and Non Profit staffing agency, she developed and enforced standards for the front-end processes of the business in all States. She is HR accredited in both the US (SPHR) and Ireland (CIPD). On her return to Ireland in 2005 she was appointed Director of External Affairs for Cork Cancer Research Centre (CCRC). In 2011 she launched the charity Breakthrough Cancer Research which fundraises for CCRC of which she is now Head of Fundraising. She is a board member of the National Cancer Registry of Ireland.

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