February 4th marks World Cancer Day and this year, the launch of a new three year campaign called “I Am and I Will,” led by the Union for International Cancer Control. The focus lies on emphasising the importance of each person’s role in the fight against cancer, and reinforcing that everyone has the power to reduce the impact of cancer.
A fundamental step towards reducing the impact is to look towards prevention and understand how to lower the risk of developing the disease. Many lifestyle factors, such as diet and smoking, can play a role in the likelihood of contracting cancer. An estimated 30-50% of cancer cases are preventable by avoiding these risk factors.
In the UK, obesity is the second biggest cause of cancer. While people make their own food choices, it is the responsibility of the government to implement the necessary measures in order to combat the rising obesity rates. Cancer Research UK says, “While we might think we’re in control of what we eat, we’re probably all being influenced more than we realise.” Marketing, cost, and convenience subconsciously influence our decisions – which may not necessarily be the healthiest ones. In an attempt to reduce the child obesity rates of the capital from 40%, junk food advertising will be banned across public transport in London as of this month.
Exercise levels are a key component of obesity, and numerous studies have looked into the association between physical activity, excess fat and cancer. Although not fully established, various chemicals and hormones (such as estrogen and insulin) appear to affect cell signalling pathways that may lead to the development of cancer. Exercise can help to lessen the levels of these hormones in the body and hence reduce the risk of uncontrollable cell division. Although keeping active may not necessarily result in weight loss, it can play a vital role in maintaining a healthy weight – reducing the risk of 13 types of cancer. Instant benefits of exercising include preventing bowel and breast cancer, improved mood, and higher energy levels.
Most people know that unhealthy eating habits may lead to problems such as heart disease or obesity. However recently there has been focus on consuming certain food types and chemicals found within foods and their effects on cancer. There are many controversies round food groups, e.g. meat and dairy, with studies claiming they either increase or decrease the chances of developing the disease.
Processed meat has emerged in the last few years as a food which should be eaten in moderation and should be limited to around 70g per day. It is estimated that 3 in 20 of male bowel cancer cases are caused as a result of eating too much red meat. While individual people are ultimately responsible for the foods they eat, food manufacturing companies can reduce harms by ensuring clear labelling of foods, and reducing the presence of damaging chemicals and additives.
Consumption of alcohol has been shown to be linked as a risk factor to cancers of the oral cavity, oesophagus, liver, and more. However currently there is no evidence that binge drinking is any better or worse in terms of cancer risk and frequency. In a directly proportional relationship the risk of cancer appears to increase as the quantity of alcohol increases. Alcohol may also increase the levels of estrogen in the body, which is associated with a higher risk for breast cancer.
Smokers have long been informed of an increased risk for lung cancer. In the US alone, 80 to 90% of all lung cancer cases are attributable to smoking. An absence of the habit can prevent fifteen different types of cancer; however the consequences are worse the longer people have smoked. Research suggests that a DNA mutation with the potential to cause cancer occurs once for every fifteen cigarettes smoked. Combining both alcohol and smoking increases the risk by around 33%. Second-hand smoke also increases a non-smokers’ risk of developing cancers of the lung, larynx, and pharynx.
The above risk factors are not the sole cause or single correlation to developing cancer, and are all associated by complex relationships. By not only looking at prevention as a way to reduce the impact of cancer, everyone can share knowledge and make people aware of what changes to make.