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Women students know nothing of lifestyle links to breast cancer

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by Cancer Research UK | News

10 July 2006

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The vast majority of women students worldwide know nothing about the lifestyle habits that can influence breast cancer risk. And they are no better informed about the disease than their male counterparts according to a report* published today.

In a Cancer Research UK led study of more than 10,000 female students from 23 countries, fewer than five per cent realised that alcohol, exercise or being overweight could influence breast cancer risk.

Just over half acknowledged that heredity could be a factor. But almost one third of the young women questioned were not aware that any factors could influence breast cancer risk.

Overall the study questioned 19,000 male and female students and found that women knew no more than men about factors influencing breast cancer risk.

Female students in England showed less awareness than their American counterparts who topped the international list for believing that various lifestyle factors could play a part in developing the disease.

More than 15 per cent of Americans believed that being overweight is a risk factor in breast cancer while not quite seven percent of English students thought it had any relevance.

While 10 per cent of American women believed alcohol influenced risk only four percent of English students thought it did.

Almost 18 per cent of American female students thought exercise had an influence on breast cancer but only 3.5 per cent of English students mentioned it.

Professor Jane Wardle, director of Cancer Research UK’s health behaviour unit at University College, London, said: “It is very worrying that information about being overweight, having a high alcohol intake and taking little physical exercise has simply not been effectively communicated to young women in any of the countries we surveyed.

“The results of this study suggest that students could be overestimating the impact of genetic factors and are certainly underestimating the importance of lifestyle factors. The danger is that women who do not have relatives with breast cancer may believe that since they have a lower genetic risk they need take no account of lifestyle risks.

“The study was carried out with university students because they are likely to be the opinion formers of the future, and if graduates are not aware of risks, then it’s unlikely that anyone else knows. Women from higher socio-economic backgrounds also have a higher incidence of breast cancer in later life.”

More women students in Iceland, Ireland, Greece and South America than in England thought lack of exercise was a factor. And more students in Greece, Spain and Columbia than in England mentioned alcohol as a factor.

Awareness of heredity was higher than other factors in all countries with more than 93 per cent of Americans mentioning it as against 73 per cent of English students. In Eastern Europe, with the exception of Poland, awareness of heredity was much lower. And in Africa and South America awareness was lowest.

Almost 20 per cent of American students and almost 10 per cent of English students mentioned stress as a factor in breast cancer risk, despite much less scientific evidence of links with stress than with alcohol and body weight.

Professor John Toy, medical director of Cancer Research UK, said: “The message that lifestyle can influence breast cancer risk is a very important one to get across to all women to enable them to take some control over their future lives.

“While breast cancer risk increases with age – 80 per cent of cases are in women over 50 – it is never too early to start learning healthy habits that can help reduce the risk of many cancers including breast. “


For media enquiries contact Sally Staples in the press office on 020 7061 8313, or the out of hours duty press officer on 07050 264059.

Notes to Editor

*European Journal of Cancer

Breast Cancer and Risk

The risk of breast cancer is strongly linked to age. The older a woman is, the greater her chances of getting the disease. One women in nine will be diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK.

Family History:

A history of breast cancer in the family puts women at slightly increased risk. A woman’s risk is greater if a close relative had breast cancer before the age of 50 or if two or more close relatives have been affected.


Starting periods at a younger age or having a late menopause increases risk


Hormone replacement therapy increases the risk of breast cancer. Risk increases the longer a woman takes it and decreases gradually after she stops taking it.

The Pill:

Taking oral contraceptives may cause a small increases in risk but this gradually returns to normal once a woman stops taking them.


Being overweight after the menopause increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer as body fat affects hormone levels.


Drinking alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer. The more a woman drinks each day the greater her risk.


The longer a woman breastfeeds her children, the LOWER her risk of breast cancer.

Having Children:

The more children a woman has, the LOWER her risk of breast cancer. Being younger when she has children also DECREASES her risk

Half of all cases of cancer can be prevented. Cancer Research UK’s Reduce the Risk Campaign was launched to raise awareness of how cancer risk can be reduced by the following changes to lifestyle:

Stop Smoking:

It’s the best present you’ll ever give yourself.

Stay in shape:

Be active and keep a healthy body weight

Eat and drink healthily:

Limit alcohol and choose a balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables

Be SunSmart

Protect your self in the sun and take care not to burn

Look after number one: Know your body and see your doctor about anything unusual.

For more information about different types of cancer, diagnosis and treatment for patients and their families, visit Cancer Research UK’s patient information website.