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 451.

    Dear editor, Do you pick comments like 423.AV8 just to cause a fuss? We all realise (I hope) that Smokers and Drinkers do pay for their NHS care through tax, while I do admit, those who are obese do not
    Smokers and Drinkers will pay more to the NHS than you ever will.Yes, they they do put stress on the NHS, but go take a look at HR site and see the billions the government make from them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 450.

    "How about making smokers, drinkers and unhealthy eaters contribute towards the cost of their health care treatments?"
    Or even fit and health marathon runners? "Marathon training "may pose heart risk" BBC Website today. "Marathon runners a drain on limited health resources" could have been an alternative headline using the logic of this argument.

  • rate this

    Comment number 449.

    @ jt

    . . contact your stores manager about inedible fruits in your supermarkets. I've complained many times about this problem.

    Its such a waste, fruits being harvested too early and unable to ripen on our shelves. Its the producers we ought to complain to, but they are foreign, and out of reach.

  • rate this

    Comment number 448.

    I reckon cancer is akin to dry/wet rot. Every building has the potential for dry/wet rot provided the conditions are right, and I see no reason that should not be the same for a human being. I do not think the practical aspects of lifestyle alone can cause cancer, but also emotional and psychological factors. "Healthy food" and exercise is not enough if the person were resistant to change.

  • rate this

    Comment number 447.

    again Cancer Research produce a statistical exercise instead of spending the money on proper research into a cure - if it was as easy as lifestyle choices vegatarian non smokers non drinkers would be living to 130

  • rate this

    Comment number 446.

    And things are not getting any better, at least here in Canada. A few days ago I wanted to buy a 10k bag of whole wheat flour. After trying 6 supermarkets I found that the 10k size is no longer produced. What's more is that each store only displayed a few bags of ww flour even in smaller sizes while 90% of shelf space displayed white flour in many brands and sizes incl. 10k. so ww price doubled.

  • rate this

    Comment number 445.

    interesting that environmental factors were not included in this BBC report and maybe the actual report.
    I wonder if the likelihood of getting cancer increases if you walk to work along a congested road?
    Have these researchers tested what is actually in the air we breathe everyday and if the air carcinogenic?
    Imagine if all UK persons were provided with face masks to decrease risk of cancer!

  • rate this

    Comment number 444.

    Those (especially) males diagnosed with head and neck cancer (esp. in the Oropharynx region - back of throat, base of tongue, tonsils) - should ask for a HPV detection test from their Doctor. It is likely that the hospital has a stored biopsy of your cancer, testing for HPV will tell you the cause of your cancer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 443.

    Remember what Sir Humphrey said over 20 years ago - '1/4 of the NHS is paid by tobacco tax, and smokers are national benefactors. If they die early, there is also savings on pensions.' Sad but still true. One has to die of something, and it is no longer infections and TB.

  • rate this

    Comment number 442.

    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!


    I hope you'd treat your informant with the contempt he richly deserves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 441.

    Is it just me that's finding that the BBC increasingly caught in the PC trap, and attracting a lot of wagging fingered people who love nothing better than to tell how others to live or spout what's wrong with the country. To what end? OK your better than me, make better choices with your life, I'm a burden on you I know. The trouble is I don't think if one thing gets fixed you will be satisfied.

  • rate this

    Comment number 440.

    Ahem~ Aims & Scope: Cancer is a complex problem. The international effort to understand & control it involves clinicians trained in many branches of medicine & scientists from almost all of the biological disciplines & beyond. British Journal of Cancer (BJC) exists to serve the needs of this diverse community, providing a forum for communicating the very best cancer research to a broad audience.

  • rate this

    Comment number 439.

    @AV8 nothing is more dumb than people making dumb remarks.

    Smokers and drinkers more than pay their way I think you will find they are way in credit when it comes to healthcare contributions.

    Try researching first otherwise you will look dumb.

  • rate this

    Comment number 438.

    I would love to eat more fruit, if only the supermarkets would sell frit that was edible. Most of it goes from raw to rotten without actually becoming ripe and so much of it gets thrown away!

  • rate this

    Comment number 437.

    Would you buy a house in a slum area full of thugs and filth?? of course not.
    Cancer does the opposite, he avoids strong healthy individuals who do their exercises and eat healthily and do not smoke or take oacohol. But if you are fat and not sportive, gorge of junck food, smoke fags and dope, and guzzle alcohol everyday - you're a dead duck to a cancer attack.

  • rate this

    Comment number 436.

    Most of these surveys seem to be done with a very cherry picked demographic to reinforce the point they are trying to make. Stand by for new goverment taxes on the items singled out, there are thousands of healthy people diagnosed with cancer everyday whos lifestyles are a paragon of health and fitness.

  • rate this

    Comment number 435.

    Who let the smoking Nazi's out? Yes - we see them every week here on BBC HYS..

    FiS - Ex Smoker (Peer Pressure =*( )

  • rate this

    Comment number 434.

    When my brother asked his oncologist is he should change his diet, she told him of his colon cancer "You didn't eat yourself into this, and you're not going to eat yourself out." After sufferring painful results from surgery and chemo, he died anyway. Had he stopped eating meat, dairy, and empty white breads and pasta, and avoided sugar, I'm sure he would have lived longer with less pain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 433.


    Drinkers, and smokers in particular, are contributing hugely to their health care by way of hefty duty and VAT charges on booze and cigarettes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 432.

    There is nothing dumber than a smoker.


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