Why you’re more at risk of cancer than 25 years ago - here’s what to do about it

Cancer lifestyle risks
Cancer lifestyle risks

One in two people will develop cancer during their lifetime, is the well-known cancer statistic.

But a new one has come to light – cases in the UK have jumped by about 50 per cent over the past 25 years. The figure comes from a recent study by Cancer Research UK, which examined cancer cases and deaths among people aged 35 to 69 in 1993 and the same age group in 2018.

Diagnoses jumped 57 per cent for men and 48 per cent for women over this period, with prostate and breast cancer seeing the biggest rises, while skin, liver, oral and kidney cancer cases also trended worryingly upwards.

Deaths increased, though to a smaller extent than cases, which the researchers put down to the decline in smoking and advancements in screening, diagnostic tests and treatment.

The “concerning” increase in cases is due to rises in risk factors, such as high rates of obesity and diabetes, as well as cheaper holidays and a lack of regulation around tanning beds until 2010, the team concluded. However, while the risk is increasing across the country, there are steps you can take to lower your risk.

Lose 5 per cent of your body weight

When UK researchers began comprehensively logging cancer cases and deaths in 1993, the average man weighed 12 stone 6lbs and the average woman weighed 10 stone 7lbs, according to NHS England data.

Since then, fast food chains have taken over high streets, food and drinks high in fat, sugar or salt have become cheaper and activity levels have dropped. Meanwhile, the numbers displayed on bathroom scales across the country have been gradually creeping upwards.

“People are eating more, eating worse, moving less and taking less care of their overall health,” says Prof Karol Sikora, a renowned oncologist and honorary professor of professional practice at the University of Buckingham. “Obesity is a huge driving factor of cancer. We need to be upfront about that. Being severely overweight is awful for one’s health and should not be normalised.”

Latest measurements show that the average man and woman are now 8 per cent larger than the early 1990s, weighing in at 13 stone 6lbs and 11 stone 5lbs, respectively.

As a result, the nation’s cancer risk is higher. Storing too much fat can disrupt growth and sex hormones and increase inflammation, all of which increase the risk of cancer developing. However, studies suggest these changes can be reversed through weight loss.

One paper by a team at the City of Hope cancer research centre in California, who monitored 40,000 postmenopausal women for three years, found that those who shed just 5 per cent of their body weight had a 12 per cent lower risk of developing breast cancer, compared with women whose weight stayed stagnant.

“Getting your weight to a healthy range is essential. For the vast majority, it is absolutely doable and the only thing standing in the way is a lack of willpower,” says Prof Sikora.

“Everything in balance – moderating what you drink and what you eat, without entirely eliminating what you enjoy. It has to be sustainable, otherwise there’s no chance of it succeeding for the long term.”

Take fewer holidays and wear a hat on the golf course

Collectively, Brits took about 27 million holidays abroad per year in the mid-90s but the figure has since doubled, fuelled by the boom in budget holidays, with a week in the Mediterranean currently on offer for as little as £130.

This rise in jet setting, coupled with a surge in demand for sunbeds, means people are being increasingly exposed to ultraviolet (UV) radiation – energy that damages the DNA in skin cells to the point that they grow out of control, which can lead to skin cancer.

UV exposure is behind nearly nine in 10 cases of melanoma, which have increased by about 4 per cent over the past 25 years, according to the Cancer Research UK study.

But it’s not just during sunny holidays – research also suggests caution when gardening, skiing and playing tennis, when people are also exposed to UV radiation.

For example, golfers are two-and-a-half times more likely to develop skin cancer than the rest of the population, according to analysis from the University of Oxford and University of South Australia. Scientists behind the finding advised golfers to wear wide-brimmed hats rather than golf caps and regularly reapply a high Sun Protection Factor (SPF) sun cream.

“The population is ageing and advanced age is a risk factor for skin cancer due to prolonged exposure to UV damage and decreased cellular reparation mechanisms,” says Dr Zainab Laftah, a consultant dermatologist and British Skin Foundation spokesperson.

“However the rise in skin cancer rates is increasing across all age groups and this is a reflection of our sun-seeking behaviour as more of us are travelling to sunny destinations more frequently.

Golfers are more likely to develop skin cancer than the rest of the population - Getty

“To reduce your risk of skin cancer, my recommendations include wearing sunscreen with an SPF 30+, applying it every two to three hours, immediately after sweating and swimming.

“Seek shade between 11am and 3pm and wear a wide brim hat if in direct sunlight.”

Megan Winter, health information manager at Cancer Research UK, adds that people should also wear UV protection sunglasses and apply sunscreen to the parts of their skin that can’t be covered with clothing to reduce their risk.

Add an extra 10 minutes of activity to your day

The amount of movement in our days has plummeted over the past few decades, as people have become wedded to their cars, online deliveries and, more recently, hybrid working.

Latest data shows that just six in 10 people are getting two-and-a-half hours of exercise per week – the minimum amount recommended. A quarter of people are moving for less than 30 minutes each week.

“With sedentary jobs, working from home and often poor public transport there is less exercise built into our days,” says Prof Pat Price, a leading oncologist and chairman of Radiotherapy UK.

“Now one in two of us will develop cancer, with a 30 per cent increase anticipated by 2040. But it does not have to be this way and there are things we can do.”

Being physically active lowers the risk of cancer by helping to maintain a healthy weight, reducing levels of the hormones oestrogen and insulin, which in high levels increase the risk of developing breast cancer, and lowering inflammation.

Official advice is to be active every day and perform two-and-a-half hours of moderate activity (brisk walking, riding a bike or cutting the grass) per week or exercise vigorously (running, swimming or football) for one hour and 15 minutes each week, as well as including strengthening activities.

But, promisingly, Cancer Research UK says any additional exercise on top of what people already do is beneficial – even if it is just an extra 10 minutes per day.

“Think about making small changes to your daily routine whether at home, work or when travelling. For example, getting off the bus one stop earlier, using the stairs instead of the lift or doing seated exercises while you watch television. Anything that gets you warmer, slightly out of breath and your heart beating faster counts,” says Ms Winter.

Research suggests that just a few minutes of activity per day can reduce the risk. Scientists at the University of Sydney examined health data for more than 22,000 people without cancer who wore activity trackers for one week and were then monitored for seven years. Results showed that just three-and-a-half minutes of vigorous exercise per day cut the risk of cancer by 18 per cent, compared with those who didn’t do any vigorous activity.

Have at least three alcohol-free days every week – and cut back as you age

Middle-aged people today are more likely to drink than their parents, as they are financially better off and alcohol has become cheaper, data suggest. Drinking patterns have also changed, with people opting to have a glass of wine at home rather than a pint of beer in the pub.

Additionally, drink measures have increased – with a 250ml glass of wine becoming more popular – and women are drinking more, which experts have blamed on the alcohol industry’s efforts to “pink up” drinks and “wine o’clock” culture.

However, our penchant for Pinot is risking our health. The body breaks alcohol down into a chemical called acetaldehyde, which can damage cells. Alcohol also increases levels of certain hormones and causes changes to cells in the mouth and throat.

Each of these processes raise the risk of cancer. The seven types linked to alcohol consumption are breast, bowel, liver, mouth and three types of throat cancer.

A dramatic warning last year from the World Health Organisation, based on a 2021 study, stated that no amount of alcohol is safe.

However, advice from the UK’s Chief Medical Officer (CMO) states that people should drink no more than 14 units of alcohol per week (equivalent to around six medium glasses of wine or six pints of beer) and that it should be spread across three or more days.

Karen Tyrell, the chief executive of the charity Drinkaware, says: “There are still more than eight million people drinking above the CMO’s guidelines and that is putting their health at risk.

“Spread your drinking out over the week, avoid any binge drinking and include at least three drink-free days. Finally, switch some of your alcoholic drinks with water, a soft drink or a low or no alcohol alternative, which are much more widely available now,” she says.

Advice also varies depending on age. The body’s ability to metabolise alcohol declines over time, meaning that after drinking a glass or two of wine, a 50-year-old will be left with higher blood alcohol levels than a 20-year-old. As alcohol is left in the body for longer, the cancer risk increases, studies suggest.


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