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 551.

    Of course it is, why wouldn't it be?? Nothing to do with all those Nuclear weapons tests. Or pesticides or growth hormones. Plastic packaging etc etc

  • rate this

    Comment number 550.

    Isn't a report supposed to reveal something we didn't know already?
    Smoking and drinking too much kills. "Phew.Thanks committee for clearing that up in my mind."

  • rate this

    Comment number 549.

    40% from lifestyle, that means 60% from elsewhere. Maybe pollution in air/water, food additives, crop spray pestisides and chemicals we use on a daily basis need to be considered. The 40% increase their exposure to harmful substances, likewise living in a polluted environment can as well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 548.

    So are they saying that they have absolute proof that 40% of all cancers will not occur if you ditch these 'avoidable life choices'.

    Or is this another piece of 'research' that shows a tentative association between these factors and cancer rather than causality?

    I think it is the latter and doesn't show prove anything at all. Daily Mail research methods again!

  • rate this

    Comment number 547.

    "How about making smokers, drinkers and unhealthy eaters contribute towards the cost of their health care treatments?"

    Smokers and drinkers do contribute- it's called duty tax.

  • rate this

    Comment number 546.

    Thought living longer was bad for the government.

  • rate this

    Comment number 545.

    When, when when, will this Country realise that it not just smoking, drinking and unhealthy eating that is causing more cancers. How about the car flumes we are all breathing in....what damage is that causing us. No more ever blames the environment for anything. Why...because we all rely on being mobile.

  • rate this

    Comment number 544.

    dont anybody tell the government that all these people can get cancer, theyll slap a tax on it

  • rate this

    Comment number 543.

    tfeathers, you really are a fool. I wonder what you would do, God forbid, if your child ever suffered from bacterial meningitis? Homeopathy perhaps?

    What you have spectacularly failed to grasp is that modern medicine is based on evidence, cf. alternative medicine and just shouting louder than everyone else, and the beauty of this is that it is available to all to be scrutinised - pubmed.com.

  • rate this

    Comment number 542.

    Statistically there is a big difference between "association" and "causality". I'd like to understand which we're talkonh about here.

  • rate this

    Comment number 541.

    Whats needed is a reliable method of detecting cancer - preferably from a blood test type procedure.

    My own experience of scares on this and actual experience of people I know is that it seems impossible to diagnose in time to prevent serious, serious damage!

  • rate this

    Comment number 540.

    I think evryone needs at lest one vice, otherwise life could get very boring. Tabacco is mine and at 65 I am still going strong. But then I eat well, dont drink a lot, get plenty of exercise and donlt worry about it too much.

    It is when you start combining two or more vices together then starrt tearing yourself apart with guilt that things can start getting difficult.

  • rate this

    Comment number 539.

    Alcohol and Tobacco taxes contribute more in taxes to Government coffers than they cost the NHS.
    Also, life is a terminal condition, so if we all stopped doing what is killing us today, we would all be told to stop doing something else next year.
    After all, "you are going to die from SOMETHING!"

  • rate this

    Comment number 538.

    Comment number 423. AV8
    4 Hours ago

    How about making smokers, drinkers and unhealthy eaters contribute towards the cost of their health care treatments?

    They do. Have you looked at the tax mark-up on tobacco and alcohol recently.

  • rate this

    Comment number 537.

    If veggies tasted like bacon we'd all eat our share. Is a long boring life with no pleasures (running, never a beer and a diet of leafs, twiggs and strained plankton) better than a short life with some enjoyment. I'll take shorter but happier.

  • rate this

    Comment number 536.

    AV8 - smokers and drinkers are a major revenue source for government through duties? so probably pay for their NHS costs indirectly over a lifetime.
    If you get rid of the smoker and drinkers, what would doctors and nurses do? what about the whole supply chain and people employed?

  • rate this

    Comment number 535.

    533.Swiss but what if they were to ban it all would non smokers/drinkers etc complain when a huge rise in taxes happens to cover the gap left by banning?

    ++Absolutely. Income tax would have to go up by 2 to 3p in the £ or they start a stealth tax to hit us all. Or higher duty on booze? Petrol? Increased VAT?

  • rate this

    Comment number 534.

    Choose to take the risk if you like but don’t kid yourself that it makes no difference without smoking lung cancer would go from being one of the most common cancers to one of the rarest

    ++I doubt it. Smoking is the visible scapegoat. What of all the diesel particles in the air, the other carcinogenic pollutants. Many non-smokers die of lung cancer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 533.

    Correct me if I'm wrong but don't smokers contribute a huge tax added to each pack they buy? The last government said a small % would go to the NHS, in my mind this should be 100%, the same goes for Junk food and alcohol.
    Life's too short to not to enjoy, but what if they were to ban it all would non smokers/drinkers etc complain when a huge rise in taxes happens to cover the gap left by banning?

  • rate this

    Comment number 532.

    Boy, how some grasp at nettles. Yes 40% of cancers can be attributed to lifestyle and diet, that means the evidence in very strong. However it does not mean 60% are not, it simply means the evidence is not well established or research has simply not been undertaken. Do some reading, engage your brain and join the dots.


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