In the UK, a person is diagnosed with cancer every two minutes. Incidence rates have risen by nearly 30% since the 1970s, increasing in women by 37% and in men by 17%. This can be partly explained by more robust screening programmes. But it’s also down to our lifestyles: the way we eat and whether we drink, smoke or exercise (and how often). According to Cancer Research UK, 42% of cancer cases are preventable through lifestyle changes, 9% linked to an unhealthy diet alone. Alarming? Yes, but it does mean there are steps you can take to reduce your risk – starting right now.
1 Watch your weight and waist
Being overweight or obese accounts for 5% of cancer cases and increases the risk of 11 cancers including kidney, breast and bowel, so it’s important to keep an eye on the scales. You can assess your BMI and ensure it’s within the healthy range of 18.5 to 24.9 by using the BMI calculator at nhs.uk.
Waist size is an equally important measure. It should be no larger than 80cm (31.5in) for women or 94cm (37in) for men.
‘Always avoid fad diets when trying to lose weight,’ says Monika Siemicka, oncology dietitian and BDA spokesperson. ‘Yes, you may lose weight very quickly, but once you return to old eating habits the weight is more likely to come back on. For the best results, think about long-term changes that are easy to make and stick to.’
If you’re among the 62% of adults who are overweight or obese, ask your GP to refer you to a dietitian to guide you through a healthy weight-loss plan, or search for a registered dietitian at freelancedietitians.org.
2 Turn to plants
There’s plenty of evidence linking a diet rich in vegetables, fruit and pulses to a reduced cancer risk. ‘Years of research have shown a healthy balanced diet can help to reduce the risk of cancer,’ confirms Dr Jana Witt of Cancer Research UK. The connection between eating large amounts of red and processed meat and colorectal or bowel cancer is also well established; a US study found those who ate a vegetarian diet had a 22% lower risk of colorectal cancer.
When dietary patterns are broken down, eating too few fruit and veg accounts for 5% of cancer cases, eating red and processed meat for 3%, eating too little fibre for 2% and too much salt for 1%. But there is good news: according to the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF), consuming fruit and non-starchy veg such as broccoli, kale, spinach and carrots can reduce the risk of cancers of the mouth and throat. This may be because they contain lots of antioxidant nutrients, as well as other naturally occurring substances that help to protect cells in the body from damage.
3 Cut processed foods
THE WCRF confirms that processed meat, such as bacon, salami, chorizo and ham, increases the risk of gut cancers, possibly because the preservatives it contains irritate the gut. It recommends we eat no more than 500g cooked red meat a week and goes as far as to say we should avoid processed meat entirely. But in the UK, the Department of Health recommends a combined maximum of 70g cooked red and processed meat a day.
Eating a lot of processed foods (meat or otherwise) means you’re more likely to have a diet high in saturated fat, which may increase your risk of several cancers, including breast cancer. The large-scale European Prospective Investigation into Cancer (EPIC) study found post-menopausal women who ate higher levels of saturated fats doubled their risk of breast cancer compared with those eating the least amount.
4 Move much more
However you stay active, whether by running, swimming, cycling or weight training, keep doing it – you’re protecting yourself against a number of cancers, including breast, bowel and womb. And if you don’t exercise, get into the habit. Around 3,400 cancer cases a year are linked to being physically inactive. Besides keeping your weight down, exercise can reduce levels of hormones, including oestrogen, which is thought to fuel some forms of breast and womb cancers. Being active also helps food to move through the bowel, limiting the time food and any harmful chemicals spend there, so reducing the risk of gut cancers.
5 Be wise with booze
The causal link between alcohol and cancer is undisputed. There’s no safe limit or difference between varieties. And now we know alcohol doesn’t just increase the risk of liver cancer but seven other types of cancer, too, including bowel, breast and mouth/throat.
‘Research shows nine in 10 people aren’t aware of the link between alcohol and cancer,’ says Jana. She suggests having some alcohol-free days each week, swapping every other alcoholic drink with a soft drink and choosing lower-alcohol options. Stick to the recommended intake of no more than 14 units a week for both men and women. Even slightly above this and the risk increases of dying from alcohol-related causes. Visit drinkaware.co.uk for more advice.
6 Don’t smoke
It’s the largest single preventable cause of cancer in the UK. In fact, if no one smoked there would be 64,500 fewer cancer cases every year. ‘Quitting smoking isn’t easy,’ recognises HFG expert Dr Dawn Harper. ‘But there’s more support out there than ever before.’ The health benefits of giving up are massive, so it’s really worth going for it. Just 20 minutes after your last cigarette your heart rate will start to drop and after two weeks your circulation will improve. But here’s the really important bit: if you can stay off the cigarettes for 10 years your lung cancer risk falls to half that of someone who still smokes. Speak to your GP about local smoking cessation services or visit nhs.uk/smokefree for free support.
7 Don’t rely on supplements
They’ll never be as good as the nutrients found naturally in food. Eating a varied, healthy diet is usually enough (with a few exceptions, such as folic acid for women trying for a baby and in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and vitamin D during the winter months). ‘There are so many different nutrients in our diets – it’s not just one specific vitamin that’s going to reduce our risk, which we see in the hype about superfoods,’ says Monika. ‘Instead, it’s about getting balance in our diet.’
On the whole, research has shown supplements have no effect on the risk of common cancers and in some cases have even been found to be harmful. High doses of beta-carotene supplements, for example, actually increase the risk of lung cancer in smokers.
8 Check your pill
Taking the combined contraceptive pill has been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer, but this returns to normal 10 years after you stop taking it. But some studies have found the pill offers protection against cervical, womb, ovarian and colon cancers. ‘One in four women in the UK use the combined pill and it’s an excellent form of contraception,’ says Dawn. ‘For most women the benefits outweigh the risks, but if you have a family history of breast cancer, it may be time for a contraceptive MOT. There’s a lot of choice, so have a chat with your GP.’
9 Don’t fear soya
Soya products contain phytoestrogens, which have a similar structure to the female sex hormone oestrogen (high levels of which are linked to some cancers, such as breast cancer). Previously, it was thought these phytoestrogens mimicked the effect of oestrogen, sparking concerns that eating soya products would increase the risk of breast cancer. However, in 2012 the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR) revealed soya products don’t raise oestrogen levels in humans, but may in fact help to lower the risk of breast cancer.
AICR also confirmed that women who had breast cancer or had survived the disease no longer needed to worry about eating moderate amounts, such as one or two daily servings of tofu, soya milk or edamame. The WCRF goes as far as to say there may be a link between better survival after breast cancer and eating foods containing soya, but the evidence isn’t yet strong enough to recommend eating more.
Studies that have looked at the impact of soya on other hormone-related cancers, such as prostate and womb cancers, generally show no increased risk. The fact is, soya foods are consistent with eating a more plant-based diet. ‘Many countries that have a high soya intake don’t equally have high rates of breast or prostate cancer,’ says Monika. ‘Soya has a very good nutrient profile as it contains lots of essential amino acids. But if you’re swapping regular cow’s milk for soya alternatives, make sure it’s fortified with calcium.’
10 Increase fibre
Colorectal cancer is less common in people who eat a high-fibre diet; their risk is reduced by as much as 20%. Fibre cuts down the transit time of food in the gut and, therefore, the amount of time harmful bacteria are in our digestive system. ‘Eating fibre creates a symbiotic relationship in our bowel with the good bacteria,’ says Monika. ‘Bacteria feed off the dietary fibre, which is then converted back into short-chain fatty acids. Around 95% of adults don’t get enough fibre (we need around 30g a day). Find it in anything labelled as wholegrain and by eating plenty of fruit and vegetables.’