NEARLY 600,000 cancer cases in the UK could have been avoided in the last five years if people had healthier lifestyles, researchers claim today.
Charity Cancer Research UK said more than four in 10 cancers could be prevented by changes to lifestyles.
It warns that with health services already overstretched and people living longer, prevention is vital to tackle cancer head on.
Smoking remains by far the biggest preventable cause of cancer in the UK, accounting for more than 314,000 cases in the past five years - nearly a fifth of all cancers.
But new figures from the charity show a further 145,000 cases could have been prevented if people had eaten a healthy balanced diet low in red and processed meat and salt, and high in vegetables, fruit and fibre.
It estimates that keeping a healthy weight could have also prevented around 88,000 cases.
Cutting down on alcohol, protecting skin in the sun and taking more exercise could also have helped prevent 134,000 cases.
Prof Max Parkin, a Cancer Research UK statistician at Queen Mary University of London, whose landmark study formed the basis of the findings, said: “There’s now little doubt that certain lifestyle choices can have a big impact on cancer risk, with research around the world all pointing to the same key risk factors.
“Of course everyone enjoys some extra treats during the Christmas holidays so we don’t want to ban mince pies and wine but it’s a good time to think about taking up some healthy habits for 2015. Leading a healthy lifestyle can’t guarantee someone won’t get cancer but we can stack the odds in our favour by taking positive steps now that will help decrease our cancer risk in future.”
Justine Sheils, 43, of Liverpool has had five cancerous moles removed after regularly using sunbeds in her youth.
She said: “We didn’t know about the dangers of sunbathing when I was in my teens and twenties, or at least I didn’t want to know. I sunbathed on holiday and then used sunbeds to keep my tan topped up all year around, which was the fashion in those days. It wasn’t until I noticed a suspicious-looking mole on my chest that I really thought about the risks I was taking.
“Being diagnosed with malignant melanoma gave me one heck of a wake-up call. It’s been a truly horrible experience but it did make me think about how I need to overhaul my lifestyle. So I’ve taken up running, I make sure I’m eating a healthy diet and getting my five fruit and vegetables every day and I’ve cut back on alcohol.
“I feel so lucky to have been given a second chance and I wouldn’t waste it for the world.”
Prof Linda Bauld, Cancer Research UK’s expert on cancer prevention, said: “There are more than 200 types of cancer each caused by a complex set of factors - involving both our genes and our lifestyles. There are proven ways to minimise our risk of cancer – like giving up smoking, being more active, drinking less alcohol and maintaining a healthy weight. We must make sure the public and the policy-makers know the evidence behind the benefits of these lifestyle changes is solid.”
The charity’s chief executive Harpal Kumar said: “Every year tens of thousands of people in the UK will be diagnosed with preventable cancers unless we act now to help people lead healthier lives. Alongside investment in health campaigns and ways to help people reduce their risk of cancer, the government urgently needs to take action to stop children starting smoking by introducing standardised packaging for cigarettes without delay.”