Lifestyle and cancer risk - Is there really a link?

We see information in the media nearly every day telling us about what we should be eating to stay healthy and recommending the next ‘superfood’ that will prevent us from getting cancer. But how much truth is behind these claims? What is a healthy diet and can it really reduce our risk of getting cancer?

Firstly, let’s look at what the risk factors for cancer are. Cancer is caused by damage to the DNA or genetic make up of our cells. Cells are the building blocks of our body which are controlled by this DNA. If it is damaged, the cells can start to multiply uncontrollably to produce a cluster of cells which is often called a tumour. This tumour is not always cancerous, but if it is, it can grow bigger and invade surrounding healthy organs and tissues and can spread to other parts of the body also. We don’t know exactly what causes many cancers but there are certain things that can increase your cancer risk.

  • Inherited genes - Research shows that these genes only cause about 5-10% of cancers and scientists have linked genes to certain cancers such as bowel and breast cancer.

  • Infectious diseases – some infectious diseases can increase the risk of cancer such as Helicobacter pylori bacteria which can increase the risk of stomach cancer, HPV (human papilloma virus) which is linked to cervical cancer and Hepatitis B and C which is linked to liver cancer.

  • Occupational and environmental factors – Certain harmful substances found in the workplace or environment have been found to cause cancer including asbestos which is a natural mineral that can cause damage to the lungs which is now banned in the UK. The main environmental factor that can cause cancer is exposure to the sun or ultraviolet light (UV) which is linked to skin cancer.

  • Lifestyle factors – Smoking alone is responsible for 90% of lung cancers so avoiding smoking or quitting it is the most important action you can take to reduce your risk of cancer. After that, ABOUT ONE THIRD of the most common cancers in the UK could be prevented by EATING A HEALTHY DIET, being PHYSICALLY ACTIVE and maintaining a HEALTHY WEIGHT. That is about 80,000 cases in the UK every year so yes there is definitely a link between your lifestyle and risk of developing cancer! 

Over the next few blogs, I am going to explain how diet, physical activity and weight can either reduce or increase your cancer risk based on the most up to date scientific research currently available. Stay tuned!