Healthy living is worth it

It’s mid-January, and while many resolutions will still be going strong, some may have already fallen by the wayside. But it’s worth sticking to those healthy plans. Living a healthy life can make you feel more energetic and relaxed, and can reduce the risk of developing cancer.

As ever, the past year’s been a busy one in the field of lifestyle and cancer prevention. In this post we take a look back over the year and pick out some of the exciting developments in research, policy and campaigns.

Some findings have hinted at new information, whilst others have strengthened our existing knowledge. And others have not so much found an answer, as posed new questions.

How many cancers?

In December, a Cancer Research UK-funded study revealed that more than four in 10 cancers in the UK could be prevented by changes to our lifestyle and environment. It was no surprise that tobacco was by far the most important preventable cause of cancer – decades of research have shown its huge effect on cancer risk. After smoking, being overweight, drinking alcohol and having a poor diet are the most important preventable causes of cancer.

The wider benefits of a healthy lifestyle were highlighted in an American Cancer Society study published in April. The study rated how well people stuck to healthy living guidelines for weight, physical activity, alcohol drinking and diet, and followed them for 14 years.

People with the healthiest lifestyles were less likely to die from heart disease or cancer during the study, but not only that – they were less likely to have died within that time from any cause, compared to people with the unhealthiest lifestyles.

Helping bring smoking rates down

In March 2011, the Government launched its Tobacco Control Plan for England. They announced that eye-catching tobacco displays in shops will be removed by April this year in supermarkets and by April 2014 in smaller shops.

The Government will also be holding a consultation on whether cigarettes should be sold in plain packaging.

The consultation’s now been delayed until spring 2012, but we’ve launched our campaign to help give children one less reason to start smoking.

Could coffee reduce the risk of womb cancer?

Towards the end of the year, three studies were published that all seemed to support the idea that drinking coffee could slightly lower the risk of womb cancer. Two large US studies, one that followed over 220,000 women for nearly 10 years and another which followed 67,000 nurses for 26 years, found that women who drank the most coffee had a lower risk of the disease.

Another study, which looked at all the published evidence to date (including the two US reports), found that women who drank three to four cups a day had a 29 per cent lower risk of womb cancer compared with women who didn’t drink coffee. This is a small effect compared with the influence of other factors, such as weight. And this evidence isn’t conclusive, especially as scientists don’t yet understand how the effect works, but it does seem a promising start.

We’d like to see some more research to understand what’s going on.

Losing weight can cut cancer risk

Good news for everyone who resolved to lose weight this year! A review published last summer found that people who intentionally lost weight seemed to reduce their risk of cancer.

We’ve known for some time that being overweight or obese can increase the risk of certain cancers – including some of the most common types – but it has been less clear whether deliberately losing weight (rather than avoiding putting weight on) can reduce that risk.

But according to this study, it can – and even small bits of weight loss can help contribute to reducing the risk.

Another good reason to cut down on alcohol?

We already know that alcohol causes seven types of cancer. This year saw more evidence that heavy drinking could also be linked to stomach cancer. The European Prospective Investigation into Cancer (EPIC) found that men drinking more than four drinks a day had a higher stomach cancer risk (65 per cent greater) than those who drank very small amounts.

Another study looked at the results of 59 separate studies into alcohol and stomach cancer. They concluded that there was no evidence of a link with moderate drinking, but that heavy drinking did increase the risk (by about 20 per cent compared to non-drinkers).

These studies aren’t conclusive on their own; more evidence would be needed to say for sure whether drinking lots of alcohol can cause stomach cancer to develop. But they do give us an indication and another good reason to stick to New Year’s Resolutions to cut down on drinking.

R UV Ugly?

In December, Cancer Research UK teamed up with Sk:n clinics on our R UV Ugly campaign to show young people the damage that sunbeds can do. If you visit the R UV Ugly Facebook page, you can claim two free skin assessments to see for yourself the damaging effects of sunbeds.

Using a sunbed for the first time under the age of 35 increases the risk of malignant melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer by 75 per cent. R UV Ugly will also be going on tour, so look out for it if you live in the North of England.

New era for lung cancer screening research

Lung cancer is the second most common cancer in the UK, affecting around 40,000 people every year. And sadly less than 1 in 10 of those people will survive the disease for more than five years after their diagnosis. Part of the reason for this is that lung cancer is often diagnosed late, when options for treatment are more limited and less likely to be successful.

The results of the National Lung Screening Trial which were published in the New England Journal of Medicine in June, have shaken up this area of research. The trial did show a clear benefit – there were 20 per cent fewer deaths from lung cancer amongst the people receiving screening from a new technique called spiral CT scanning compared to chest x-rays.

But the downside is that following up a positive screening result can come with a whole raft of new problems and complications for patients. So screening could end up doing more harm than good, as Hazel discussed in this blog post.

So it seems to be a case of solving the problem of whether lung screening has the potential to save lives, only to encounter a whole new set of problems to find out if it can ever work in practice. We’ll keep you posted on the next wave of research.

Hello to HPV testing and Gardasil

HPV testing – which spots the DNA of the virus that causes cervical cancer – started to become part of the national cervical screening programme from April 2011. HPV tests will automatically be carried out on ‘borderline’ smear results, which should reduce the number of women having unnecessary investigations and the worry that goes along with these extra tests.

And in November, the government announced that the contract for the next round of HPV vaccination would go to Gardasil, replacing the current vaccine of choice, Cervarix. Gardasil is more effective than Cervarix against the HPV strains that cause genital warts, and is still highly effective against those related to cervical cancer. Gardasil will take over from Cervarix from September 2012.

Healthy Living 2012

Encouragingly, most of the research into reducing cancer risk last year helped us understand more about the advice we already encourage people to follow – and confirmed the benefits of living a healthy life. The best ways to cut the risk are to not smoke, eat healthily, keep a healthy weight, limit alcohol, be safe in the sun and keep active. And though healthy living isn’t a guarantee, it can help stack the odds in your favour.

So what are the best ways to achieve this? If your resolve is flagging as we head towards February, or you simply need some new ideas, our Healthy Living pages here to help.

Research has shown that smokers are four times more likely to quit with professional support. Find out more about the NHS and Quit helplines plus other useful tips to help you make the break with smoking.

Eating a healthy diet and keeping a healthy weight are resolutions that support one another, especially if you throw in some activity. That’s one of the reasons we got together with Weight Concern to formulate our Ten Top Tips, they’re designed to fit into your life and are based on the best scientific evidence.

Cutting down on alcohol has a variety of benefits for your health. But what level should you aim to get down to? The government suggests no more than three to four units (about two pints of standard beer or two regular glasses of wine) a day for men, and two to three units (one standard pint or a large glass of wine) for women. The Science and Technology Select Committee recently suggested that people should also have at least two booze-free days every week, which we think sounds sensible.

Happy New Year and good luck with your resolutions!


Sarah Williams is a health information officer at Cancer Research UK