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Lifestyle changes could prevent one in four cases of bowel cancer by 2024

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by Cancer Research UK | News

16 March 2009

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Improving lifestyles now could prevent 12,000 cases (26 per cent) of bowel cancer by the year 2024 – a new report by Cancer Research UK predicts today.

Men stand to reap the greatest benefit with almost a third (31 per cent) of male bowel cancer cases being prevented while the number of female cases could be cut by almost a fifth (18 per cent) if they adopt healthier lifestyles.

The most effective measures are paying particular attention to cutting back on red and processed meat and staying trim. But eating fruit and vegetables, taking plenty of exercise and limiting alcohol are also key areas where both men and women could help to cut bowel cancer rates.

Cancer Research UK epidemiologist Professor Max Parkin has calculated that bowel cancer incidence is on course to jump from the current 36,000 cases a year to almost 46,000 a year by 2024.

But we can all take steps to reduce our risk.

For men top of the “to do” list is to cut back on the amount of red meat on the menu. If all men ate no more than three ounces (80 grams) of red meat a day the number of cases of male bowel cancer would be reduced by 3640 (14 per cent). For women, who eat less red meat than men, there would be a small (3 per cent) reduction of cases – 640 a year by 2024.

Overall, maintaining a healthy weight is key to cutting the levels of disease in men and women. Being overweight or obese increases the risk of bowel cancer. A drop in the number of people who are overweight could cut the number of cases by 3470 (7.6 per cent). Even stabilising at current levels would cut the predicted number of future cases by 3 per cent.

And it is important to eat at least five portions of vegetables and fruit a day which could reduce the number of cases by 2830 (6 per cent).

Keeping alcohol to no more than a pint of beer (three units) a day for men and a glass of wine (two units) for women would prevent a further 1680 cases (3.7 per cent). Regular physical activity – which also helps keep the weight off – could prevent a further 1150 cases (2.5 per cent).

Prof Parkin said: “Around 19,700 men and just over 16,500 women are diagnosed with bowel cancer each year. As people live longer more people can expect to develop the disease in the future but people can change their lifestyles to reduce their risk.

“In the case of bowel cancer this is particularly true of men. We could expect to see a drop of 31 per cent by 2024 if more men watched what they ate and kept an eye on their waistline. And for women we can predict a drop of 18 per cent.”

Sara Hiom, Cancer Research UK’s director of health information, said: “There are many practical things we can all do on a daily basis that will help reduce our bowel cancer risk. Eating sensibly, limiting alcohol, taking exercise and keeping a healthy weight all contribute to this.

“And as the bowel cancer screening programme is implemented throughout the country we will see more bowel cancers detected early bringing a better prognosis for the patient.”


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Parkin DM, Olsen AH, & Sasieni P (2009). The potential for prevention of colorectal cancer in the UK Eur J Cancer Prev DOI: 10.1097/CEJ.0b013e32830c8d83