Reducing the risks

Let’s beat cancer

Doctors still don’t fully understand why our bodies cause cancer to happen. But there is increasing evidence that lifestyle has a significant impact. Smoking is the single biggest culprit, responsible for 19.4% of new cases in 2010 – but as factors also play a role, it’s definitely a good idea to think about leading an anti-cancer lifestyle.

Watch your weight

Experts tell us that obesity could influence cancer. It’s estimated that 5.5% of all UK cancers could be linked to excess weight, particularly cancers of the uterus, kidney and oesophagus. They may not be sure why or how it happens, but they are sure – for example – that the hormonal effects of excess weight could be connected to post-menopausal breast cancer. Being overweight can also cause acid reflux, which in turn could increase the risk of adenocarcinoma of the oesophagus.

Eat a healthy diet

Some cancers, including leukaemia, have no link at all to what you eat: other types, including cancer of the bowel, breast, oesophagus and stomach, are known to have dietary connections. Overall, 9.2% of cancer cases have been linked to four dietary factors: a lack of fruit and vegetables, high consumption of red and processed meat, lack of fibre and excess salt.

However, while there is no strong evidence that particular foods help prevent cancer, it’s long been held that cutting down on some foods could be good for you. A healthy diet includes wholegrain cereals, fruit, vegetables and pulses, and protein such as chicken, fish, eggs, and lean meat.

Stop smoking

If people stopped smoking we’d dramatically cut cancer rates, not just of the lung, but also other forms of the disease including cancer of the bladder and oesophagus,” says Dr Nicholas Van As, consultant clinical oncologist specialising in urological and gastrointestinal cancers at The Royal Marsden Hospital, London.

Statistics show 86% of lung cancers are connected to smoking, as are 79% of cancers of the larynx, 64.5% of cancers of the oral cavity and pharynx, and 65% of oesophageal cancers. The bottom line is that you should quit now and start reducing your risk. Talk to your GP about the support available to you, from nicotine replacement products to counselling.

Don’t drink too much alcohol 

Alcohol is not widely thought of as being a cancer risk. In terms of cancer though, alcohol consumption has been connected to cancers of the head and neck. When combined with smoking, it can promote development even more powerfully. There’s also evidence connecting alcohol to breast and colon cancers – and estimates suggest that 4% of UK cancer cases could be linked to alcohol consumption. If you do decide you want to drink alcohol, it’s a good idea to stay within Government guidelines: do not regularly drink more than 2 to 3 units a day for women or 3 to 4 a day for men (totalling no more than 14 units a week for women and 21 for men).

Stay active

Being physically inactive is associated with 1% of cancers. It may increase your risk of breast, colon and uterine cancer in particular. Although it isn’t known exactly how exercise reduces your risk, scientists think it may alter hormone levels, which could cut your chances of breast and endometrial cancer, while activity might affect colon cancer risk, including reducing inflammation and insulin resistance and lowering faecal transit time.

Being active also helps you keep to a healthy weight, which reduces your risk of cancer. Adults should do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise – walking, cycling, swimming – each week, plus muscle-strengthening exercise, such as weights in the gym or yoga, twice weekly.

What should you do?

We talk to experts regularly, asking their opinions on what people could do to lead a healthier lifestyle and reduce the risk of cancer. Three of those experts told us:

  • “Don’t smoke. It’s the single biggest thing you can do to reduce your cancer risk.”
    Dr Nicholas Van As (consultant clinical oncologist at The Royal Marsden Hospital, London)
  • “Go for your smear test. It really could save your life.”
    Dr Susana Banerjee (consultant medical oncologist at The Royal Marsden Hospital, London)
  • “Choose a healthy diet, plenty of fruit and vegetables, very little red and processed meat.”
    Professor Malcolm Mason (prostate cancer specialist for Cancer Research UK)

Back to top