From taking an aspirin to eating more fibre, Healthista reveal lifestyle changes proven to prevent cancer – a World Cancer Day special
The past couple of years has seen some iconic celebrities die from cancer – Jeremy Hardy, Victoria Wood, Sir Terry Wogan, David Bowie and Alan Rickman – after long, often very private battles with cancer.
According to Cancer Research UK, some 40 per cent of cancers could be prevented through diet and lifestyle. One reason may be down to epigenetics, a new area of research into the way our environment and lifestyles influence the genetics we’re born with.
40 per cent of cancers could be prevented through diet and lifestyle
‘As we understand more about the way our genes are switched on and off by factors in our environment, we get closer and closer to being able to advise people what they can do to help turn on genes linked with cancer protection and switch off those linked with causing it.’
Though the research is still in its early days, epigenetics may one day identify the exact lifestyle and dietary factors that could prevent cancer, he says. Until then, here is what is proven to lower your risk.
1. Lose ten pounds
Some 60 per cent of Brits are overweight or obese and being the fat man of Europe causes a staggering 52,000 cases of cancers each year including those of the breast, womb, liver, prostate and pancreas (obesity is second only to smoking which causes 64,000 cases annually).
‘The heavier you are the greater your risk of these particular cancers,’ says Linda Bauld, professor of healthy policy at the University of Stirling, who explains that even if you’re more than 20 pounds overweight, any weight loss will lower your risk.
In 2017, the World Cancer Research (WCRF) released evidence linking obesity with stomach cancer, which is the third biggest cancer killer in the world.
2. Stick to a glass a night
When earlier this year, chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies declared no level of alcohol consumption was safe and changed weekly recommendations to 14 units for both men and women, the key reason was the link between even low alcohol consumption and seven types of cancers including those of the breast, liver, bowel, mouth and throat (the WCRF’s research recently linked three or more drinks a day to stomach cancer too).
‘The risk of cancer starts at even low levels of alcohol so it’s best to stick to a glass a night,’ Prof. Bauld says.
The risk of cancer starts at even low levels of alcohol so it’s best to stick to a glass a night
How about saving up all your units for Friday night, then? ‘Alcohol is ethanol which is metabolised into a substance called acetaldehyde which the body finds difficult to process,’ she explains. ‘ High levels cause dehydration which makes cells more vulnerable to multiplying, and this effect is greater the more alcohol you drink on one occasion.’
3. Take an aspirin
We’ve known for some time that taking a low-dose aspirin a day may help prevent the risk of heart attack but now, growing evidence suggests it could help prevent colorectal or bowel cancer, which strikes over 40,000 Brits each year.
In April 2017, the United States Preventative Service Task Force updated its guidelines to recommend all adults aged 50-59 should take a low dose aspirin for ten years. Though the UK is yet to follow, many medical experts are convinced of aspirin’s benefit.
‘The evidence is strong that taking aspirin for five years or more reduces the risk of developing bowel cancer,’ says Professor Johnson.
People who do get cancer are at less risk of having it spread if they take aspirin
‘It’s also been found that people who do get cancer are at less risk of having it spread if they take aspirin.’ If there is an inherited tendency toward bowel cancer, taking a low-dose aspirin is a good idea, he suggests.
‘Aspirin may work by reprogramming the way the immune system works in particular affecting the inflammation pathways in the lining of the gut, and thus having some effect on its ability to recognise very early cancers and remove them,’ Prof. Johnson says. But it comes with risks such as bleeding from ulcers in the stomach, so talk to your doctor before taking it.
4. Marinate your meat
Processed and red meat are associated with a higher risk of developing bowel and stomach cancers
In the 1990s the biggest study into nutrition and cancer began tracking the diets of 500,000 healthy people aged 45-79 across ten countries in Europe and Britain to see who would get cancer. Among the key findings from European Study on Diet and Cancer (EPIC) were that processed and red meat are associated with a higher risk of developing bowel and stomach cancers.
Current recommendations suggest sticking to 70 grams a day (about two rashers of bacon) and according to CRUK, this one change could prevent a staggering 8,800 cases of bowel cancer each year.
Research also suggests charred or well-done meats may be associated with increased risk because of cancer-causing heterocyclic amines (HCAs) which form when meat is cooked at high temperatures. But meat lovers don’t despair, fascinating research from Kansas State University found that marinating meat in spices such as rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil, sage and marjoram before cooking could lower the HCA components in meat (so could taking the skin off chicken).
5. Go for fibre
Simply increasing your fibre and your fruit and vegetable intake to five portions a day could help prevent 14 different types of cancers, the EPIC study found.
Increasing your intake of fibrous whole grains such as oats, brown rice and wholemeal bread was particularly associated with a lowered risk of bowel cancer and some research has suggested it may help prevent breast and prostate cancers too.
It’s not certain how it happens but some speculate that this too might be about gut bacteria. ‘Studies like EPIC show consistently that people who eat lots of fibre, fruit and vegetables have low levels of cancer and the reason could be that these people consequently have a healthy gut microbiome that helps the immune system fight off cancers,’ says Prof. Spector.
6. Use SPF 30
Though cases are up by a staggering 360 per cent since the 1970s, skin cancer is among Britain’s most preventable cancers. In April this year, a study at Ohio State University confirmed that wearing SPF 30 could help prevent not only burns but also malignant melanoma.
The researchers genetically engineered rodents to develop melanoma following application of different chemically-based SPF30 sunscreens and all were found to reduce the incidence of tumours the mice developed.
‘Sunscreen is important but its also crucial to get in the shade when the sun is strong, to wear a hat and to protect kids as children who have been exposed to sunburn are more likely to develop skin cancer as adults,’ says Professor Bauld.
Blue and red fabrics offer better sun protection than white or yellow ones
Colour choice can help too. When covering up, Spanish research found that blue and red fabrics offered better sun protection than white or yellow ones. Make sure you protect areas where sun hits as these are where most cancers develop. Think bald heads and torsos in men and or exposed calves in women.
7. Move more
The EPIC study found that those who did 30 minutes of exercise each day or had an active job had lower chance of developing cancer and other research has confirmed that being active each day could prevent around 3,400 cases of breast, bowel and womb cancers in Britain.
‘Being active improves hormone levels which can hep reduce a woman’s risk of developing breast and womb cancer,’ says Prof. Johnson. ‘It also helps transit times in the intestine, helping food move through faster so there’s less chance of anything in the food you’ve eaten setting off an inflammatory reaction in the bowel which is how is lowers bowel cancer risk.’