Almost 40% of Australian cancer deaths could be avoided with lifestyle changes

Amanda Lyons

13/12/2017 2:32:14 PM

New research showing almost 40% of Australian cancer deaths could be avoided with lifestyle changes helps to underline the importance of preventive healthcare.

News teaser
GPs can play an important role in helping patients modify their lifestyle according to the identified areas of cancer risk.

The QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute has found that 38% of cancer deaths in Australia – about 16,700 deaths a year – could be avoided through changes in lifestyle.
‘While cancer has strong underlying genetic drivers, there’s also a large environmental component of cancer risk,’ Professor David Whiteman, Senior Scientist and Deputy Director at QIMR, told newsGP.
The study identified eight lifestyle factors in preventable cancers – tobacco smoking, excessive alcohol, being overweight, poor diet, inadequate physical activity, exposure to UV light, infections (such as hepatitis C), and some menopausal hormonal therapy.
These results underscore the importance of preventive care in helping to reduce Australian cancer rates.
‘GPs have clearly got a role in terms of [smoking, alcohol, physical activity] risk factors, and overweight and obesity. There’s really good evidence that GPs can be effective in helping people to give up smoking,’ Professor Mark Harris, GP and main author of the RACGP’s SNAP (smoking, nutrition, alcohol and physical activity) guide, told newsGP.
‘There’s good evidence that GPs are listened to and are considered an authoritative source of support and advice, and also of referral to other services.’
While the lifestyle factors named in the study are unlikely to be a revelation to healthcare professionals, what could be surprise is the range of cancers to which some of these risks can be linked; for example, alcohol.
‘When I did my medical training, alcohol was thought to be a cause of liver cancer and cancers of the throat and the oesophagus, and that was it,’ Professor Whiteman said.
‘We now have very good evidence that alcohol is a cause of breast cancer in women. In fact, of all the cancers caused by alcohol, cancers of the breast are the most numerous amongst women, and more cases of breast cancer are attributable to alcohol than for any other cancer in women.’
The QIMR study has also noted trends in cancer rates over time, as different lifestyle risk factors have become more prominent.
‘The prevalence of smoking has dropped quite steadily in Australia,’ Professor Whiteman said. ‘That’s had a beneficial effect on cancer incidence in men, for whom the incidence of lung cancer has been dropping, as have some other cancers of the oesophagus, mouth and throat due to smoking.
‘But we’ve also seen an increase in overweight and obesity in Australians. These are known risk factors for different kinds of cancers, and cancers of the liver and the oesophagus have been rising steeply over the past couple of decades, mostly attributable to obesity.’

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