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 431.

    How shameful of the BBC, dumbing down to the worst of the tabloids. This is the 'headline' on the home page - Lifestyle 'behind 40% of cancers'

    The report doesn't say that, and even if it did any responsible, professional journalist would quickly see it isn't true.

    Shame on you BBC.

  • rate this

    Comment number 430.

    426 Joe Thompson

    That quote is the opposite of confirmation bias.

  • rate this

    Comment number 429.

    Agreed~ I often wonder if most of those who comment actually read the articles or just the headline then jump on the venom train.

    40% of cancer linked to lifestyle = 60% of cancer unattributed.
    Rather than complain about how healthy you were & how we're all picking on you, which isn't happening, how about complaining about those 40% of people who throw their lives away with things known to kill!

  • rate this

    Comment number 428.

    we used to die of thiongs like bubonic plague, WW2 and coal mines collapsing on us.

    Nowadays we have the NHS, EEC and the HSE, so something else is gonna get us

  • rate this

    Comment number 427.

    I shall blame BBC for the graphic which is titled 'Key causes of cancer' and would like to point out someone should go away and check the difference between 'Causes' and ' Increase Risk of' as this graphic is missleading.
    Smoking, Drinking, Obesity... These do not cause cancer, they increase (albiet, significantly) the risk above your genetic baseline to apparently 40% of Cancers

  • rate this

    Comment number 426.

    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."

    I've never seen such a wilful admission of confirmation bias before. Top quality research right here...

  • rate this

    Comment number 425.

    THIS study said that 40% of cancers are caused by lifestyle choices that are easy to control. So the other 60% are caused by other factors. It is unfortunate if you or a loved one led a healthy lifestyle and developed to cancer. But, if someone tells me that 40% of pedestrian fatalities are caused by crossing the street with your eyes closed, I am going to open my eyes to mitigate that risk!

  • rate this

    Comment number 424.

    So...an unhealthy lifestyle is likely to cause cancer, and training for a marathon will damage your heart.

    Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

  • rate this

    Comment number 423.

    How about making smokers, drinkers and unhealthy eaters contribute towards the cost of their health care treatments? It might help individuals develop a sense of responsibility. I know there are exceptions but surerly smoking is the number one killer followed by obesity. These people are a huge burden on the NHS and affect the resources available to you and I. Why do we tolerate this?

  • rate this

    Comment number 422.

    What we have ask is how this data was gathered? The article says that the deaths are "linked to" various factors. This does not mean that a causal connection has been established in each case, but that it might be a matter of the opinion of the doctor diagnosing the causes of death and the various theories about what the risk factors are. Too many studies are based on this kind of "assumed" data.

  • rate this

    Comment number 421.

    376. John - and where would you emigrate to?
    380. Dragonage - sounds like you'll get your wish/

  • rate this

    Comment number 420.

    To all who say smokers should not get treatment on NHS please note tax and duty collection by the revenue for tobacco is over £9.5bn and smoking related treatment cost to NHS is just over £2bn so smokers contribution is paid for 4 times over at least

  • rate this

    Comment number 419.

    Cancerous cells do not realise they are harmful living tissues in humans and other animals. They 'er forever looking around for some place where they can flourish and thrive.

    So if you render yourself vulnerable to cancer cells, they will invade and destroy you. So, stay healthy. Eat well, don't smoke or take alcohol !!

  • rate this

    Comment number 418.

    I am suspicious of some of these figures. How precisely can you link a cancer to insufficient fruit?

  • rate this

    Comment number 417.

    # 404 - Breast cancer is one of the horrors that can be inherited.. Women I know, led healthy life styles and were still affected due to this inherited condition. Very sadly a couple of these ladies have passed away. However, the others are doing very well, because the cancer was detected very early on.

    #402 - There are so many cancers - 4 in 10 of us will be affected at some point. :((

  • rate this

    Comment number 416.

    If we all follow this advice and live till we're 150, it's going to really play havoc with the pension arrangements.

    It reminds me of the old joke,
    "Doctor, how can I live 20 years longer?"
    "Do you drink?"
    "Do you smoke?"
    "Do you have a girlfriend?"
    "Do you gamble?"
    "Do you have a fast car?"
    "Why the hell do you want to live 20 years longer then?"

  • rate this

    Comment number 415.

    If the government/food and water suppliers cut out all the unhealthy additives to our food and water we might stand a chance of living healthily and possibly keeping some cancers at bay but not the way things are at the moment I'm afraid. Too much greed and some people making huge profits and lining their own pockets to care.

  • rate this

    Comment number 414.

    404. Sarah
    Because they were unlucky. There's nothing in this study that says you can't develop cancer if you have a healthy lifestyle it just says it is more likely if you don't.
    Even lung cancer which has a 92% risk enhancement if you smoke can occur if you don't smoke.
    Incidentally did your four friends avoid dairy products? They are thought to contribute to the risk of breast cancer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 413.

    Why has the Acrylamide story gone quiet? Toast, crusty bread, crispbread, chips, crisps, roast and baked potatoes. Wherever carbohydrates are heated above a certain temperature.

  • rate this

    Comment number 412.

    "These ailments are self inflicted and should not be funded under the national health. "

    This is a sadly typical, but totally stupid statement. The vast majority of injuries can be said to have and element of self-infliction. If we refrain from certain activities, we cut the risk of injury. You are actually arguing for a private insurance that assesses each persons risks and charges accordingly.


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