More than 40 per cent of all cancers in the UK could be prevented by avoiding unhealthy lifestyles and environmental risks, according to research.
Smoking, unhealthy diets, alcohol and being overweight cause in excess of 100,000 tumours every year, accounting for a third of all preventable cancers. The figure increases to 134,000 when all 14 risk factors – including sun exposure, occupational hazards, infections and hormone replacement therapy – are taken into account.
The findings, published by Cancer Research UK, are based on figures from 2010 and provide one of the most comprehensive pictures of the links between lifestyle and cancer to date.
The study, published in the British Journal of Cancer, will put further pressure on the Government to tackle smoking rates, obesity levels, binge drinking and the use of sunbeds by teenagers. Currently, the authorities rely on voluntary agreements from the industries concerted – who are understandably keen to protect their own interests.
Last night, health experts called for more focus on prevention measures to deal with the growing burden of lifestyle-related diseases. Many of the risk factors analysed are strongly linked to other big killers such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes, which cost the NHS billions of pounds every year.
Sir Richard Thompson, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said: "These stark new figures are a wake-up call to the Government to take stronger action on public health. The rising incidence of preventable cancers shows that the 'carrot' approach of voluntary agreements with industry is not enough to prompt healthy behaviours, and needs to be replaced by the 'stick' approach of legislative solutions, which includes increasing the price and reducing the availability of alcohol."
Dr Harpal Kumar, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said the healthcare system was tilted disproportionately towards treating diseases. "If we could prevent 134,000 cancers every year this would lead to enormous savings in health costs, so there is a credible case to be made for more resources in prevention," he said.
The most common cancers in the UK are breast in women, prostate in men, followed by lung and bowel among both sexes. Prostate is one of very few cancers for which there is no evidence of preventable cases. Unsurprisingly, the review confirmed tobacco as the worst offender, responsible for one in five or 60,000 cancers each year. Smoking is responsible for nine out of 10 lung cancers, but also increases the risk of liver cancer even more than alcohol.
Not eating the recommended five fruit and vegetables per day accounted for an unexpectedly high number of cancers – 20,000 cancers each year – closely linked to mouth, throat and oesophagus tumours. Skin cancer, one of the fastest-growing types of melanoma, is almost entirely preventable by avoiding sunbeds and excessive sunbathing. Exposure to hazardous chemicals such as asbestos and pesticides at work, as well as shift and night working, cause more than 11,000 cancers – two thirds among men.