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 411.

    Government health warning:

    "Governments can seriously damage your health"

  • rate this

    Comment number 410.

    Cancer is where the DNA goes wrong and it is realited to age. Nature has deem us to live a certain age. People who live beyond 80 will become frail and die naturally or get Cancer. It is in our makeup. I don't think our lifestyle choices have much to do with it unless you smoke of course !

  • rate this

    Comment number 409.

    We are all aware of those risk factors which are mentioned above. The problem is the risk factors people do not want to look into? I feel that there is too much emphisys on things like lung cancer and smoking - most people with lung cancer smoke - but there is still a small percentage who have never smoked.
    Can the 'key reasons' really have been tested accuratly without knowing all variables?

  • rate this

    Comment number 408.

    404.Sarah - the clue is in the "much more likely". This article does not talk about all risk factors, nor does it pretend to, is just says the listed behaviours make it more likely & are probably causing 40% of total cancers.

    If you are higly genetically predisposed to any given type of cancer you'll liekly get it regardless, if only mildly suceptible avoid those behaviours & you'll likely not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 407.

    If I was stupid I would do some or all of:

    1) List several people I know, or have heard of, who lived healthy lifestyles but have cancer.
    2) List several people I know, or have heard of, who lived unhealthy lifestyles and did not have cancer.
    3) Assert that the journal paper on which this BBC article is some sort of propaganda financed by a cartel of rogue greengrocers who may have the PMs ear.

  • rate this

    Comment number 406.

    Sounds like the medical establishment making excuses yet again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 405.

    Don't smoke. Drink occasionally. Eat more fruit and veg.

    Limit red meat and dairy foods. Limit puddings, sweets and chocolate.

    Cut out junk food. Learn to cook, if you don't know how.

    Walk regularly and keep your brain active. Keep an eye on your weight and cholestoral.

    It's not rocket science. Just sensible living and it won't cost you anymore !

  • rate this

    Comment number 404.

    According to this article women who are overweight are much more likely to get breast cancer - so why are the four women I know who have had breast cancer 1) not overweight 2) exercise / lead healthy lifestyles 3) not drinkers ??

  • rate this

    Comment number 403.

    These percentages are somewhat confusing. Some add up to more than 100% which is probably because several lifestyle choices increase the risk of those particular cancers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 402.

    How do you prove a cancer is avoidable?
    If I sit on a sunny beach and go on to develop a carcinoma then the experts will claim that this was an avoidable cancer caused by my life style. However, my neighbour, sitting on the same beach on the same day for the same amount of time does not develop a carcinoma. Explain:
    maybe there's no such thing as an 'avoidable' cancer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 401.

    If it was all about healthy lifestyle, you'd think footballers, who have the best health care of all would have long healthy lives wouldn't you?
    Not so for Emlyn Hughes, Alan Ball, Bobby Moore, just to mention a few.

    Lenonard Rossiter was a keep fit guy,didn't do him much good either.

  • rate this

    Comment number 400.

    My smoker gran died at 87 from lung cancer.

    Daughter aged 5 just diagnosed with a rare incurable brain disease that will disable her terribly and take her life before 20. A cure is probably out there, but funding negligible due to resources spent on lifestyle diseases

    Extend long lives further or fund research to give children a future? Discuss.

  • rate this

    Comment number 399.

    The comments posted here are insane!! Do people have nothing to live for? Are you all completely self-centered? Think about this little statistic. 4.5 BILLION is spent by the NHS on cancer treatment alone in the UK. That means if you put down the cigarette, pick up an apple and go for a walk, you will provide 2billion a year for research and treatment for unavoidable forms of cancer, saving lives!

  • rate this

    Comment number 398.

    What this highlights for me is that we need much more research and support into the psychology of weight loss and healthy eating. Simply trying to diet has a staggeringly low success rate, yet finding ways which really help people to lose weight seems to have a very low priority. Meanwhile the diet industry rips people off again and again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 397.

    We already heavily tax un-healthy life styles and fruit and veg is already zero rated for vat. The only reasonable answer we have left is education. So well done the BBC for talking about the issue.

  • rate this

    Comment number 396.

    "It is called evolution.
    People who do not look after themselves died young.

    Neither of your statements are true. Evolutionary success is all about passing on your genes not about living for a long time and I know people in their 80s who have terrible diets/lifestyles. Hard to avoid environmental factors have a significant influence; we probably don't even know about most of them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 395.

    Cancer is more prevalentt in old age, now that we are genreally living longer is it any surprise that there are more cases?

  • rate this

    Comment number 394.

    Just thinking...
    If it is 40% due to our lifestyles
    and if we can control our lifestyles
    then we are responsible for 40% of the cost...

    Does this sound to anyone else like the start of an attempt by a cash strapped system to legitimise future charges?

    (Notwithstanding the cynical thinking, 40% sounds about right, but what does this number really tell us?)

  • rate this

    Comment number 393.

    I don't suppose many non-smokers have a genuine lifestyle choice wrt 2nd-hand cancers, esp. if family members or housemates smoke flagrantly with total disregard for the health of those in proximity. Likewise for smoke at public places like bus shelters.

    At a bus shelter, one can perhaps stand 20m away in the rain. But staying away from danger is not as easy when one's home is filled with smoke.

  • rate this

    Comment number 392.

    Of course lifestyle must be a factor & we all have a responsbility to ourselves to change bad habits accordingly. But I'm sure we all know people with cancer who HAVE led healthy lifestyles. I am convinced that many cancers are environmental, yet for economic reasons, it is hushed up by governments because tackling those issues would be so costly.

    For example, intensive, non-organic farming.


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