Over 330,000 people in the UK people are diagnosed with some type of cancer each year.
While many believe cancer can be put down to genetics or even just ‘bad luck’, scientific research has shown many cancers arise due to a combination of genetics, environmental factors and lifestyle choices.
According to some recent estimates, as many as four in 10 cases of are caused by factors such as; alcohol consumption, smoking, being overweight or obese, inactivity, some infections (like Human Papilloma Virus), radiation exposure or post-menopausal hormonal changes. There is no single direct measure that can be taken to prevent cancer altogether, but many lifestyle changes can significantly reduce your long-term risks.
1) Quitting smoking Smoking holds the title as the single most preventable cause of death in both the UK and the US. With tobacco smoke containing nearly 70 chemicals directly linked to causing cancer, it’s no surprise it accounts for nearly 90% of all cases of lung cancer. In addition, smoking can increase the risk of nearly a dozen other cancers such as liver, pancreas and mouth cancers. The good news is your risk of developing these cancers can be greatly reduced just by quitting smoking. Although this is often easier said than done there are now plenty of affordable quit-smoking aids available. Visit your local pharmacy for free help and advice on quitting.
2) Maintaining a healthy weight Next to quitting smoking, maintaining a healthy weight is one of the most important ways you can reduce your risk of cancer. Fat tissue produces a wide range of substances, including many hormones and growth factors, which have been shown to increase the risk of some cancers. The increase in size and number of fat cells in overweight and obese individuals means a higher number of these substances may circulate in your body. To understand your current weight status your Body Mass Index (BMI) can be calculated. This measurement takes your height and weight into consideration and from this calculation you will be able to tell if you should try to lose or gain weight in order to be within a healthy window. BMI is not a perfect measure (it does not discriminate between healthy muscle weight and fat), but it’s good general indicator. Hip-to-waist ratios have been shown to be important risk factors too.
3) Manage your diet For many people, the key to a healthy, steady weight is to have a balanced calorie-intake Vs energy-expenditure. Foods high in energy but low in nutritional value can contribute to steady weight gain, which can in turn lead to an increased risk of cancer. In addition, high consumption rates of certain foods has been directly linked to some cancers. For example, it’s thought the high exposure to haem, a natural substance found in red meat, can damage the lining of the bowels and subsequently lead to bowel cancer. In contrast, plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains have been shown to have cancer-preventing substances such as phytochemicals, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids. Although still in the early stages of research, it’s thought these substances may be able to help protect against many cancers.
4) Stay active Some research has shown that around 3,000 cancer diagnoses each year could have been prevented, simply by leading a more active lifestyle. As well as keeping our weight down, being active can reduce the risk of cancer by changing the level of hormones, such as testosterone, in circulation. Researchers at the Medical College of Qingdao University studied the activity level of women and found those women who lead an active lifestyle reduced their risk of breast cancer by around 12% when compared to those with an inactive lifestyle. Furthermore, some research has indicated that the more active a woman is, the more she can lower her chances of breast cancer. It’s been suggested that for every 2-hours of moderate exercise carried out each week, the risk of breast cancer may reduce by up to 2%.
5) Limit your alcohol intake It is well known that alcohol consumption can be linked to many different types of cancer, including of the mouth, breast, bowel and liver. Contrary to some popular belief, these effects are not drink-specific, since it is the alcohol itself causing the damage. The risks are not limited to heavy drinkers. The more your drink, the higher your risk. A large glass of wine or a pint of premium standard lager consumed every day is enough to increase your chances.
6) Stay in the know The biggest and most unavoidable risk associated with cancer is age. As we get older our chances of getting cancer increase and so it’s important to attend regular screening appointments if available to you. Most healthcare systems send out invitations for screenings for certain age groups, however, it’s important to do your own research and find out exactly what you should be screened for, what age your first screening should be and how regularly you should expect to attend them. In addition, you should also stay up-to-date with other health checks including vaccinations, pap smears and other procedures that monitor your overall health such as blood pressure and cholesterol level tests. Screening is not a perfect science, but in some areas, most notably with bowel cancer, it can save your life.
Dr Nigel Smith is a partner at Blossoms Healthcare, a private clinic specialised in health assessment, GP services, and occupational health. Nigel has over thirty years experience in managing complex health risks within working environments, as well as the refined skills necessary to support the most discerning of private patients.