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 391.

    I think that's a super conservative figure, it's more like 90+%. People love to blame genes for their health problems but the fact is that many less developed countries that don't eat the processed western diet have staggeringly lower cancer rates. 'The China study' is a real eye opening book on the matter, I suggest anyone who cares about their health should read it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 390.

    Simply being alive should carry a government health warning.

    The problem with these 'reviews' is that every couple of years the 'experts' produce yet another report that says something different. No doubt there are elements of truth in this, as in all the previous reviews of a similar nature.

    Truth is, there are, allegedly, so many things to worry about, we all need treatment for depression!

  • rate this

    Comment number 389.

    Why is tobacco not banned? I resent subsidising the cost of this poor lifestyle choice. I do not know any one who has given up who regrets the decision.

  • rate this

    Comment number 388.

    Wow this is ground breaking stufff! Who'd have thought that unhealthy lifestyles could be bad for your health! I have seen friends and family struck down by this terrible disease and like some of the responses so far they led healthy lifestyles. It seems to me that the best thing to do is to keep your fingers crossed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 387.

    378 Duparc.

    The ability to read and be click on links enabled me to find out that it was funded by Cancer Research UK.

    Two questions:

    1) Why couldn't you do this yourself?

    2) Is it still propaganda?

  • rate this

    Comment number 386.

    My Nan smoked for 75yrs & died at 87 from lung cancer

    My 5 year old little girl was diagnosed with a rare incurable disease that will cause terrible disability and death before she is 20. There probably IS a cure out there, but funding is negligible, because resources are used up by "lifestyle" diseases.

    Should money go to extend long lives further or to give a child a future?


  • rate this

    Comment number 385.


    Artificial Light at Night Contributes to Prostate Cancer and Breast Cancer Say Researchers

  • rate this

    Comment number 384.

    Lack of Fruit and Veg with being overweight = Ready Maels and too much Sugar, Salt and Food Addiditives. I don't suppose that the food companies that contribute to these stats will stand up and be counted. Too many shareholders and chief execs need paying.

  • rate this

    Comment number 383.

    Load of nonsense just happening to back current concerns, fat women and non veg eating men.
    Just because the is a correlation does not mean there is a cause and effect.
    Why bother reducing risk a little tiny bit to live a bit longer in a life long misery made of eating junk green stuff? Or other nonsense they make up.

    Eat drink and be merry for tommow we all die anyway.

  • rate this

    Comment number 382.

    376. John
    Cancer is still too misunderstood to form policies or judgements.

    you obviously haven't seen cameron's latest nugget about the EU

  • rate this

    Comment number 381.

    @ 370 "Who'd have guest"

    Maybe a guessed of yours?! Sorry...had to be said.

  • rate this

    Comment number 380.

    Comment number 67 is an Editors' Pick
    people are naturally contrary and will argue for their lifestyle decisions, not from logic but as an instinctive defence against attacks on their self-perception.
    No you are wrong people will argue for their lifestyle because if we don’t we all become robots not living but surviving, I would rather die than live the life you propose

  • rate this

    Comment number 379.

    Reading the actual report it clearly states that these statistics are estimates and that these estimates are based on various assumptions. That's not quite the same thing as evidence - the news stories are slightly misleading.

  • rate this

    Comment number 378.

    Sounds like propaganda. Who financed the research?

  • rate this

    Comment number 377.

    I treat mouth cancer. Most of my patients are drinkers/smokers. The majority are in the 40-60 age group. If the condition has a 50% mortality over 5 years, that's a fair number of patients that don't reach retirement age. Of the 50% that do make it, there is a cost to their lifestyle. I would never tell a patient to stop smoking/drinking, it might be their main pleasure in life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 376.

    Cancer is still too misunderstood to form policies or judgements. I do think that the NHS should not pay for obesity surgery or drug-abuse surgery, whether it is alcohol, tobacco or other dangerous drugs. People in this country lack responsibility and I for one refuse to pay for the forthcoming liver damage epidemic. I'd rather emigrate than live in such a sad irresponsible country.

  • rate this

    Comment number 375.

    If one looks at public health data relating to diet, lifestyle, and cancer risk, even conservative estimates indicate that 40 to 60% of all diagnosed cancer cases arise from modifiable dietary and lifestyle factors, including many of the most lethal types of cancer (e.g., lung, pancreas, esophagus, and stomach cancer).

    Robert A. Wascher, MD

    Author, "A Cancer Prevention Guide for the Human Race"

  • rate this

    Comment number 374.

    360. Rob_O "everyone would be"

    that sounds like sufficient finger pointing with a nice broad scope to me.


  • rate this

    Comment number 373.

    Truly, truly depressing reading. I am not sure which shocks me more: the inability of some people to realise that these statistics relate to populations as a whole, rather than individuals, or the ability of people to bury their heads in the sand about taking responsibility for their own health. The former I can understand, but the latter ...? This doesn't bode well for the future.

  • rate this

    Comment number 372.

    Sugars are bad for health especially fructose. Many vegetables and some nuts and fruits suppress the thyroid. Carbohydrates raise BS levels. Polyunsaturated fats are potent suppressors of the immune system and in the presence of carbs furr the arteries. Vegetables from the onion family destroy brain cells.


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