As a Health and Wellbeing Physiologist, I answer a lot of questions about cancer. Many of my clients want to know why cancer seems to be so common. One reason is we’re victims of our own success. Cancer is a disease of ageing - the longer we live, the more likely we are to develop it.
But it’s not just dumb luck. Cancer Research UK shows that over 4 in 10 cancer cases could be prevented by lifestyle changes - so there are things you can do to reduce your risk. Here are my top tips for improving your health and wellbeing.
If you smoke, STOP.
Tobacco use remains the biggest lifestyle risk factor for developing cancer (linked to 19% of all cancer cases for men and 16% for women), specifically lung cancer - the second most common cancer in the UK and responsible for more deaths than any other cancer.
Follow a Mediterranean style diet
Numerous studies show adhering to a ‘Mediterranean diet’ can decrease your risk of a number of lifestyle related diseases, including some cancers. There is no single Mediterranean diet as such, more a set of principles that include plenty of fruit, vegetables and fibre; a focus on healthy fats, such as those found in oily fish, olive oil and nuts, rather than trans fats typically found in processed food; and limiting dairy products, red meat and alcohol to ‘moderate’ levels.
Keep an eye on your weight
If you are obese you’re more likely to develop cancer. Furthermore being overweight or obese increases the risk of insulin resistance, which is a key risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes - another risk factor for cancer. Fat cells produce a hormone called leptin, an appetite suppressant. It’s also been shown to promote the development of certain tumours. As your fat cells enlarge, the body produces more leptin as it desperately tries to limit your calorie intake. Much like insulin, your body can become leptin resistant if exposed to chronically elevated levels. Excess fat storage around the waist in particular has been linked to cancer risk.
Physical inactivity has been linked to an increased risk of premature death from a raft of diseases, not just cancer. The mechanisms linking exercise to reduced cancer risk are multifaceted and include improved body composition, reduced inflammation, improved immune functioning and altered oestrogen production (oestrogen plays a role in the development of some breast cancers specifically). Even if you don’t exercise try to spend more time being active.
Moderate alcohol consumption
Many of us enjoy a beer or a glass of wine after a long day, but doing so frequently can increase your risk of cancer. Alcohol is converted by our bodies into acetaldehyde, a toxic chemical capable of causing DNA damage. Alcohol is also extremely calorie dense, increasing the risk of fat gain.
Too much ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposure causes DNA damage to your skin cells, increasing the likelihood of cancer development. When spending time outdoors throughout the summer months, you should apply a sun cream with a high SPF factor (at least 30+) at regular intervals to avoid burning – especially while on holiday. It’s worth remembering that you can burn here in the UK, so enjoy those rare sunny days in the garden but don’t forget your sun cream.
Finally, never let the British ‘stiff upper lip’ get in the way of dealing with your health concerns. While cancer cases are on the up, more people are surviving cancer with half of individuals diagnosed now surviving their disease for at least 10 years. An early diagnosis is crucial and the UK is still lagging behind many of our European counterparts. See your GP if you experience any the following symptoms:
- A thickening or lump in the body, particularly the breasts or testicles
- A persistent cough or hoarseness lasting more than three weeks
- Difficulty swallowing
- Feeling weak or persistent fatigue
- Changes in bowel or bladder habits
Ultimately, you know your body best and know what is normal for you. Any changes should be investigated. A study published in the British Journal of Cancer found that one in six men and women aged 50+ were embarrassed about sharing their symptoms with a Doctor, whilst a third did not want to waste their Doctor’s time. You could be right, it could be nothing but remember the earlier the diagnosis, the better the prognosis.
*Figures and statistics referenced from a variety of sources.
Last updated Friday 2 February 2018
First published on Tuesday 3 November 2015