Simple lifestyle changes could prevent many cancer deaths

Almost 40 per cent of cancer deaths could have been prevented by changes to a person's lifestyle, according to analysis of cancer mortality statistics.

Researchers from QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute examined eight groups of “modifiable” risk factors that international research bodies have declared to be causes of cancer.

They included; 

  • smoking and passive smoking
  • low intake of fruit, vegetables and fibre, and too much red and processed meat
  • alcohol consumption
  • being overweight or obese
  • physical inactivity
  • ultraviolet (UV) exposure
  • infections (eg. Hepatitis C and Human papillomavirus)
  • hormonal factors (eg. use of menopausal hormone therapy).

The research was an analysis of Australian Institute of health and Welfare statistics. It recently released mortality rates showing age, year, sex, and state and territory for selected cancers and all cancers combined.

The AIHW data contains incidence from 1982 to 2014 and mortality from cancers from 1968 to 2015.

Among its key findings are:

  • In 2014, more males were diagnosed with cancer than females (555 cases per 100,000 compared with 424 per 100,000)
  • In 2015, 46,003 people died from cancer. In 2015, the age-standardised cancer mortality rate was highest in the Northern Territory (202 deaths per 100,000)
  • Between 1982 and 2014, the age-standardised cancer incidence rate increased from 383 to 484 per 100,000 people
  • Between 1968 and 2015, the age-standardised cancer mortality rate decreased from 199 to 164 deaths per 100,000 people

The head of QIMR Berghofer’s Cancer Control Group, Professor David Whiteman, said they found the modifiable factors were responsible for 41 per cent of cancer deaths among Australian men and 34 per cent of cancer deaths in women.

Cancer Council Australia’s CEO, Professor Sanchia Aranda, said that while not all cancer cases are preventable, these latest research results should act as a powerful reminder to Australians that they can reduce their risk.

“This latest research builds on previous research commissioned by Cancer Council and conducted by QIMR Berghofer that showed that one in three cancer cases are preventable,” she said.

Cancer 'not always bad luck'

Professor Whiteman said the findings highlighted the seriousness of the problem.

“Cancer is the biggest cause of death in Australia. It claimed 44,000 lives in 2013 and caused untold grief and heartache to many more,” he said.

“While in many cases cancer is tragically unavoidable, this study highlights what we’ve known for years: cancer isn’t always a matter of genetics or bad luck."

“This study shows that in theory, about 17,000 cancer deaths could be prevented each year if people followed accepted guidelines to minimise their exposure to risk factors.

Small improvements would substantially reduce deaths 

Professor Whiteman says there is a lot people can do to reduce their risk of developing and dying from cancer.

“If you currently smoke, seek advice on how to quit. Limit your intake of red and processed meats and look for opportunities to incorporate extra fruit, vegetables and fibre into your diet. Most Australians don’t get enough exercise, so start introducing some simple physical activity into your routine and aim to maintain a healthy bodyweight. Finally, always remember to protect yourself from the sun."

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