Want to prevent cancer? From taking an aspirin to eating yoghurt, lifestyle changes could prevent a staggering 40 per cent of Britain’s cancers – here are the proven ways to lower your risk
A grim observation doing the rounds on Twitter is that 2016 is somehow cursed with so many celebrities dying in only the first five months, some the most iconic – Victoria Wood, Sir Terry Wogan, David Bowie and Alan Rickman – after long, often very private battles with cancer.
But 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.
‘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
There is evidence showing obesity is linked with stomach cancer
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.
Earlier this year, the World Cancer Research (WCRF) released new evidence linking obesity with stomach cancer, which is the third biggest cancer killer in the world.
2. Eat yoghurt
To keep your gut bacteria in good shape, eat a mix of probiotic foods such as live yoghurt
Our gut bacteria or microbiome has been linked with everything from mood to obesity in recent months, and a growing number of studies are now linking it to lowered cancer risk.
The latest, published last month in the journal PLOS One gave one group of mice beneficial bacteria through probiotic supplements and the other non-beneficial bacteria. The mice receiving the good bacteria produced metabolites known to prevent cancer in their guts and were also better able to metabolise fats, which the researchers said could help lower the risk of cancer.
‘Although most of the studies done on gut bacteria and cancer prevention are still on mouse models, the results are positive and that’s probably because the microbes help break down some of the toxins in the gut that might normally cause cancer, but also because they keep the immune system in great shape generally so it beats off the cancer cells,’ says Tim Spector, professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College London, founder of the British Gut Project and author of The Diet Myth (Weidenfeld and Nicholson £8.99).
To keep your gut bacteria in good shape, eat a mix of probiotic foods such as live yoghurt, kefir (fermented milk drink) and sauerkraut as well as prebiotic foods such as fruit, vegetables and high fibre whole grains and legumes to feed bacteria and help it grow, Prof. Spector explains.
3. Take an aspirin
Taking aspirin for five years or more reduces the risk of developing bowel cancer,’
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, 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.
‘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. Move more
Being active each day could prevent around 3,400 cases of breast, bowel and womb cancers in Britain.
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.’
5. Use SPF 30
Children who have been exposed to sunburn are more likely to develop skin cancer
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.
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.