Over 40% of cancers due to lifestyle, says review

Pint of beer and cigarette stub Booze, cigarettes and inactivity are collectively bad

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Nearly half of cancers diagnosed in the UK each year - over 130,000 in total - are caused by avoidable life choices including smoking, drinking and eating the wrong things, a review reveals.

Tobacco is the biggest culprit, causing 23% of cases in men and 15.6% in women, says the Cancer Research UK report.

Next comes a lack of fresh fruit and vegetables in men's diets, while for women it is being overweight.

The report is published in the British Journal of Cancer.

Its authors claim it is the most comprehensive analysis to date on the subject.

Lead author Prof Max Parkin said: "Many people believe cancer is down to fate or 'in the genes' and that it is the luck of the draw whether they get it.

"Looking at all the evidence, it's clear that around 40% of all cancers are caused by things we mostly have the power to change."

Weighty matters

Start Quote

We didn't expect to find that eating fruit and vegetables would prove to be so important in protecting men against cancer”

End Quote Prof Max Parkin

For men, the best advice appears to be: stop smoking, eat more fruit and veg and cut down on how much alcohol you drink.

For women, again, the reviews says the best advice is to stop smoking, but also watch your weight.

Prof Parkin said: "We didn't expect to find that eating fruit and vegetables would prove to be so important in protecting men against cancer. And among women we didn't expect being overweight to be more of a risk factor than alcohol."

In total, 14 lifestyle and environmental factors, such as where you live and the job you do, combine to cause 134,000 cancers in the UK each year.

Former cancer patient Jackie Gledhill: "My lifestyle had really gone downhill - I did go out for walks but it wasn't enough"

About 100,000 (34%) of the cancers are linked to smoking, diet, alcohol and excess weight.

One in 25 of cancers is linked to a person's job, such as being exposed to chemicals or asbestos.

Some risk factors are well established, such as smoking's link with lung cancer.

But others are less recognised.

For example, for breast cancer, nearly a 10th of the risk comes from being overweight or obese, far outweighing the impact of whether or not the woman breastfeeds or drinks alcohol.

And for oesophageal or gullet cancer, half of the risk comes from eating too little fruit and veg, while only a fifth of the risk is from alcohol, the report shows.

For stomach cancer, a fifth of the risk comes from having too much salt in the diet, data suggests.

Some cancers, like mouth and throat cancer, are caused almost entirely by lifestyle choices.

Cancer causes

But others, like gall bladder cancer, are largely unrelated to lifestyle.

The researchers base their calculations on predicted numbers of cases for 18 different types of cancer in 2010, using UK incidence figures for the 15-year period from 1993 to 2007.

Start Quote

By making small changes we can cut our risk of serious health problems ”

End Quote Public Health Minister Anne Milton

In men, 6.1% (9,600) of cancer cases were linked to a lack of fruit and vegetables, 4.9% (7,800) to occupation, 4.6% (7,300) to alcohol, 4.1% (6,500) to overweight and obesity and 3.5% (5,500) to excessive sun exposure and sunbeds.

In women, 6.9% (10,800) were linked to overweight and obesity, 3.7% (5,800) to infections such as HPV (which causes most cases of cervical cancer), 3.6% (5,600) to excessive sun exposure and sunbeds, 3.4% (5,300) to lack of fruit and vegetables and 3.3% (5,100) to alcohol.

Dr Rachel Thompson, of the World Cancer Research Fund, said the report added to the "now overwhelmingly strong evidence that our cancer risk is affected by our lifestyles".

Dr Harpal Kumar, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said leading a healthy lifestyle did not guarantee a person would not get cancer but the study showed "we can significantly stack the odds in our favour".

"If there are things we can do to reduce our risk of cancer we should do as much as we possibly can," he said.

Glyn Berwick, of Penny Brohn Cancer Care, which specialises in offering nutrition and exercise advice, agreed.

"We know from years of experience the positive impact that changing lifetsyles can have."

The president of the Royal College of Physicians, Sir Richard Thompson, said the findings were a wake-up call to the government to take stronger action on public health.

"The rising incidence of preventable cancers shows that the 'carrot' approach of voluntary agreements with industry is not enough to prompt healthy behaviours, and needs to be replaced by the 'stick' approach of legislative solutions," he said

The government said it was intending to begin a consultation on plain packaging by the end of this year.

Diane Abbott, Shadow Public Health Minister, said: "The government is failing on all the main public health issues.

"And the message from Labour, the Tory-led Public Health Committee, campaigners like Jamie Oliver and even some the government's own policy panels is clear: the government's approach to tackling lifestyle-related health problems is completely inadequate."

Public Health Minister Anne Milton said: "We all know that around 23,000 cases of lung cancer could be stopped each year in England if people didn't smoke.

"By making small changes we can cut our risk of serious health problems - give up smoking, watch what you drink, get more exercise and keep an eye on your weight."

Graphic showing causes of cancer

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  • rate this

    Comment number 351.

    So if we do as the good doctors say and follow all the (current) recommendations we will live longer. When all the "bad genes" in human DNA has been eradicate and we all live forever a few things concern me. What are we all going to eat? Where are we all going to live? What are we going to die of? (Boredom?) Who will pay OAP? Society should respect the life we live and be less concern about death.

  • rate this

    Comment number 350.

    My father in law was a heavy smoker and died from lung cancer in what was a painful and relatively fast decline.

    My mother was a heavy smoker and only really stopped when she was in her 60's. Now 80, she suffers from severe dementia and has been for the last 7 years, is wheelchair bound following a broken-hip and in a nursing home.

    We've all got to die and there rarely is a good way to go!

  • rate this

    Comment number 349.

    My nephew died from Brain Cancer at the age of 26, he didn't smoke or drink, ate plenty of fruit, was physically fit, and led a healthy lifestyle. Cancer is genetic says my GP, which in his terms mean whatever you do, whatever lifestyle you have, if it's already in situ, it will one day come to the surface. Doctor's are still clutching at straws sadly!

  • rate this

    Comment number 348.

    Well, you see, no one knows the effects of insecticides on foods they eat, chlorine in drinking water and filth in the air we breath. Don't believe that eating 5 fruit and veg a day will cure all: make sure it isn't lightly coated in poison. Never fall for the bent logic: because there's no scientific evidence it harms you it is therefore perfectly safe. ....Mercury tooth fillings? CJD? Asbestos?

  • rate this

    Comment number 347.

    My overwhelming response to this is...so what. It's academic research now being kicked about by politicians, which makes it highly dangerous because they are the very least qualified people to know what to do with it. We will just get treated to more conclusion jumping, public health politics, alarmist statements from vested interests and the usual media exaggeration.

  • rate this

    Comment number 346.

    @drek2 I admire your outlook on life and wish you all the best for a speedy recovery!

  • rate this

    Comment number 345.

    Lets just tell the BBC to bugger off with this story. It's clear to me that it's all a lot of bull honkey. We all know some one who is in their 90's, possibly 100's and they smoke like a chimney, drink like a fish, and eat fish suppers for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We also know the fitness fanatics who seem to be a cancer magnet. Let's change the record

  • rate this

    Comment number 344.

    Nearly half of cancers diagnosed in the UK each year - over 130,000 in total - are caused by avoidable life choices........

    Maybe true and very useful information for US to use to base OUR life choices on. So thanks for the information, but that's all that's necessary. There is NO responsibility on the Gov't to 'take stronger action on public health' because it's OUR lives not theirs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 343.

    Not really a helpful article so we are saying the other 60pct dying who were deemed as healthy but got cancer and we have no idea what caused it despite the money poured into cancer research.

  • rate this

    Comment number 342.

    So its your fault if you get most cancers'? What a load of what makes the grass, green in texas. What about what is in our supermarket foods, .and pollution in the air and soil in the U.K.

  • Comment number 341.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 340.

    Much is made of the five a day rule for fruit and veg, but no-one ever seems able to define what a portion is. An apple? A grape? A watermelon? Much the same with the eight glasses of water a day guidleine. What size glass? It's meaningless unless the units are defined.

  • rate this

    Comment number 339.

    After reading some of the comments on this article it's obvious that this report will change nothing. You could bash some people over the head with common sense and they still wouldn't take any notice. Also find it strange that so many people seem to equate healthy with boring!?

  • rate this

    Comment number 338.

    Environmental pollution is ignored

  • rate this

    Comment number 337.

    Something the bugs me right now is the fake fags people are smoking to save money. These things stink, god knows what's in them. I wouldn't be surprised if deaths go up in the next decade.

  • rate this

    Comment number 336.

    I have recently been diagnosed with neck cancer. I don't smoke, or drink. Exercise regularly eat loads of fruit and yet... Sure there are no guarantees in life but I am not convinced that a sensible lifestyle is enough. We are surrounded by mass cancer agents. In food electricty phones etc. Plus longevity is worth nothing without quality. Maybe it's just Natures way of saying "times up".

  • rate this

    Comment number 335.

    From the comments it seems a lot of readers have missed the point - these are risk factors, not the only possible origins of cancer. Headline says 40% - that implies that most cancers are not linkable to lifestyle. The lifestyle factors are important, especially since they are something we can do to reduce our risk. Does not mean a healthy lifestyle makes one immune.

  • rate this

    Comment number 334.

    Oh yes, by all means let's BLAME THE VICTIMS. Well, I don't smoke, barely drink at all, eat the minimum of processed foods but lots of fruit and vegetables, and until I got sick I did yoga and Zumba and walked as much as I could. So what did *I* do to deserve cancer?

    =Sad to hear but inferring from the article 60% of cancers arise from something else. Stay well!

  • rate this

    Comment number 333.

    "Many people believe cancer is… in the genes," says Prof. Parker, implying that genetics is not a primary cause of cancer. In his list of causes genetic predisposition doesn't get a mention!
    My partner is currently undergoing gene therapy for her cancer. She ticks all the life style choices; hardly smokes, never drinks, exercises regularly and lives off fruit and vegetables. Its in her family.

  • rate this

    Comment number 332.

    How about excising the biggest cancer in our society at present, this Government.


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