While cancer appears to strike at random – we all know a fit youngster struck down in their prime and a thriving 82 year old smoker – the most common causes are within our control. Improve your odds with lifestyle choices that stack the deck in your favour
Cancer: one amazing stat for hope
90% of cancer cases are due to environmental and lifestyle choices. Only 10% are genetic. To put it another way, our own lifestyle choices hold the key to stacking the deck in our favour against almost all cancer out there. Now that is something to celebrate - here are the six biggest and easiest wins in this space.
Causes of cancer #1 – Smoking
Compared to non-smokers, smokers are ~20 times more likely to develop lung cancer and 14 other cancers too. Stopping smoking is the most controllable action you can take to reduce your risk of cancer, but we probably don't need to tell you lot this!
Causes of cancer #2 – Red meat consumption
The International Agency for Research on Cancer categorises substances that pose a cancer risk into categories. Red meat sits in Category 2A, meaning it is "probably carcinogenic to humans" and is "associated with colorectal, pancreatic and prostate cancer in particular".
There’s “convincing evidence” processed meats cause cancer
That’s just natural meats. Processed meat ups the ante, sitting in Category 1, meaning there is "convincing evidence that processed meat causes cancer".
Fellow Group 1 substances – alongside processed meat - include tobacco and asbestos.
The message is clear: eating too much meat increases your cancer risk.
Causes of cancer #3 – Sun radiation
Harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun (and sunlamps and sunbeds) not only cause skin to age but are also responsible for 90% of melanoma development cases and getting burnt just once every two years can triple your chances of developing skin cancer.
You don’t want to overdose on UV rays, but equally there are huge health benefits from sun exposure. The answer? Sensible sun exposure.
Causes of cancer #4 – Physical activity and obesity
A sedentary lifestyle has been linked to a smorgasbord of chronic diseases, including a range of cancers. This study found clear data “showing that physically active men and women have about a 30-40% reduction in the risk of developing colon cancer, compared with inactive persons” and found the same when studying breast and lung cancer.
This isn’t even just a case for prevention. The National Cancer Institute recently highlighted how physical activity also improves survival rates.
Get active. You’ll not just boost fitness, but also improve health and longevity
- Physically active breast cancers sufferers were 42% more likely to survive than physically inactive
- Colorectal cancer survivorship was 30% more likely in physically active patients
- Survival rate of prostate cancer increased by 33% in physically active patient
The journal Nature recently reported that about 25% of global cancer cases were due to obesity.
The mechanisms are complex, but insulin plays an important role. In short, insulin resistance has been linked to various cancers, but physical activity decreases this resistance and reduces risk of diabetes too.
Causes of cancer #5 – diet
One US study concluded that 30% of cancer deaths were attributable to diet. Diet is a huge subject we don’t have room to explore in its full here, but the key areas can be broken down into four simple sections - cooking methods, additives, packaging and anti-inflammatory foods:
Amazingly, this phallic fried meat thing is not good for your health
Frying is the big issue. Studies show that consuming fried foods just once per week increases your cancer risk by a whopping 37%.
Many foods which are harmless when boiled or steamed become a huge cancer risk if fried so wherever possible, avoid the fried options.
Additives are rarely a good thing, especially nitrites and nitrates which are the main additives used to preserve processed meats. A 2016 study found a “significant association between high dietary nitrite and an increased risk of adult glioma [a tumour of the brain or spine] and thyroid cancer”.
Other additives, including sodium benzoate – commonly used in sports nutrition – are also linked to increased cancer risk.
Catastrophic for the environment, chemicals in some plastics are also linked to cancer
BPA is a chemical used in many plastic food containers. BPA can migrate into food and has been linked to breast and prostate cancer. BPA is used less often but it is still out there, so always go for ‘BPA-free’ or, better yet, don’t use plastic at all. Cut your plastic use exponentially by using non-plastic refillable containers.
Anti-inflammatory foods and cancer
In sharp contrast to the above, plant-based foods contain properties proven to reduce cancer risk. Phytochemicals in fruits, vegetables and whole grains contain anti-carcinogenic compounds including carotenoids, flavonoids and chlorophyll.
This study published in the Journal of Nutrition found fruits and vegetable phytochemical extracts were responsible for “potent antioxidant and anticancer activities”.
It won’t come as much of a surprise, but vegetables have been proven responsible for “potent anticancer activities”
Causes of cancer #6 – Alcohol
In the UK alone, alcohol is responsible for 12,000 cancer cases each year. One study published in Oral Oncology concluded “In the upper digestive tract, 25–68% of cancers are attributable to alcohol” and went on to state that many tumours “can be prevented by abstaining from alcohol”.
While the link between alcohol and oral, larynx, liver and oesophageal cancer may seem obvious, it’s also linked to an increase in breast cancer risk in women.
You don’t need to remove alcohol completely – after all, those living in Blue Zones drink red wine little and often - but lowering your intake will significantly reduce cancer risk.