Cancer starts when damage to our DNA leads cells to grow and multiply out of control. Only three in every 100 cases are linked to inherited genes, yet there is still a dangerous misconception that getting cancer is mostly down to ‘faulty’ DNA, fate or bad luck. Cancer Research UK, one of Britain’s leading charities, has estimated that over 40 percent of cancers can be avoided through simple lifestyle changes. Although a healthy lifestyle does not guarantee protection against cancer, it can stack the odds in your favour—read on for a breakdown of the risk factors we can all control.
Being smoke-free could prevent a whopping 64,500 cases of cancer per year in the UK. This equates to about 20 percent of all new cases each year. Many of the most common cancers have a large proportion of preventable cases; this is most true of lung cancer—86 percent of cases are caused by smoking. Long-term tobacco abuse is also linked to bladder, kidney, pancreatic, stomach, oesophageal, oral cavity and liver cancer. There are a variety of ways to quit, from nicotine gum and patches to e-cigarettes. Speak to your doctor to discuss what method is right for you.
Body mass index
BMI is a measurement that uses your height and weight to determine if your weight is healthy. You can calculate this figure by dividing your weight in kilograms by your height in metres and dividing that figure again by your height in metres. For most adults, a healthy BMI is in the 18.5 to 24.9 range. Keeping a healthy weight could prevent 18,100 cases of cancer per year, which is over five percent of all new cases each year in the UK. Other types of cancer attributed to excess body weight are breast, bowel, uterine, pancreatic and kidney cancer.
According to Cancer Research UK, over nine percent of cancer cases are linked to diet—five percent are linked to eating too little fruit and veg, three percent to processed meat, two percent to consuming too little fibre and one percent to consuming too much salt. Upper aero-digestive tract cancers—such as cancer in the larynx, pharynx and oesophagus—are the most common types linked to a poor diet. An estimated 31 percent of bowel cancer cases are also linked to dietary factors. Government guidelines advise to eat at least five portions of different fruits and vegetables each day.
Drink Aware’s low risk alcohol guidelines state alcohol consumption for men and women should not regularly exceed 14 units a week. This equates to six 175-millilitre glasses of wine, six pints of lager or ale and 14 25-millilitre glasses of spirits. Cancer Research UK estimates that cutting down on alcohol could prevent around 12,800 cases of cancer per year in the UK—almost four percent of new cases a year. In addition to causing weight gain, alcohol is also linked with cases of upper aero-digestive tract cancers and responsible for six percent of female breast cancer cases and 12 percent of bowel cancer cases.
Keeping out of the sun during the hottest times of the day, cutting back on sunbed use and regularly applying good-quality UV protection could prevent 11,500 cases of cancer a year—almost three percent of all new cases. According to Cancer Research UK, all of these cases were malignant melanoma.
Raising our activity levels and engaging in regular physical exercise could prevent 3,400 cases of cancer a year. Uterine, breast and colon cancers have the highest proportions of cases linked to physical inactivity. Government guidelines advise around 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week—this can be split over several days and made up of cardio exercises such as cycling or jogging and strength training activities.
The human papilloma virus (HPV) causes 99 percent of cervical cancer cases in women. Avoiding such infections could prevent around 10,600 cases of cancer per year—amounting to three percent of all new cancer cases.
If you are diagnosed with cancer, there are several treatments available. Therapy will be tailored to the type of cancer diagnosed, how big it is, whether it has spread and the patient’s general health.
Surgery, one of the main treatments, consists in removing tissue from the body. This may not be the best treatment if the cancer has spread, if the tumour is next to a blood vessel or if you have leukaemia or lymphoma. Surgery may be carried out under general or local anaesthetic and in an outpatient or inpatient facility.
Chemotherapy is an anti-cancer treatment. Administered through an IV drip, pump or pill, the treatment may be given on its own or with other treatments such as radiotherapy, hormone therapy, biological therapy and surgery. The drug works by killing cancer cells and other cells in the body which are in the process of splitting into two cells. Some alternative cancer drugs can be taken as tablets, suppositories or worn as patches.
Radiotherapy is administered to four out of ten people with cancer. This form of treatment uses radiation to damage the DNA within cancer cells. Although radiation damages healthy cells as well, these are better at repairing themselves.
Hormone therapy can be administered to block hormones and slow down the growth of cancer. Cancers that are hormone-sensitive—types of the disease that depend on hormones to grow—include breast cancer, prostate cancer, ovarian cancer and womb cancer. These will all require different types of hormone therapy.
Stem cell and bone marrow transplants may be carried out for patients diagnosed with blood cancers such as leukaemia, lymphoma and melanoma. Donor cells are collected and administered into a vein through a drip.
Immunotherapy is a kind of treatment that uses the immune system to fight cancer by helping it attack cancer cells. This can include monoclonal antibodies (MABs), vaccines and cytokines.
Other interventional treatments include radiofrequency ablation, laser treatment, high intensity focused ultrasound, photodynamic therapy, cryotherapy and ultraviolet light treatment.