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Nearly 40 per cent of cancer deaths are potentially preventable

An Australian-first study has found that 38 per cent of cancer deaths in Australia each year are potentially preventable.

The findings mean about 16,700 cancer deaths each year could potentially be avoided, mostly through lifestyle changes.

Researchers from QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute examined eight groups of “modifiable” risk factors that international research bodies have declared to be causes of cancer.

They included tobacco smoke (smoking and passive smoking); dietary factors (low intake of fruit, vegetables and fibre, and too much red and processed meat); alcohol consumption; being overweight or obese; physical inactivity; ultraviolet (UV) exposure; infections (eg. Hepatitis C and Human papillomavirus); and, hormonal factors (eg. use of menopausal hormone therapy).

The researchers analysed data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and the Australian Bureau of Statistics to determine how many cancer deaths each year are caused by those modifiable factors and are therefore, in theory, preventable.

The head of QIMR Berghofer’s Cancer Control Group, Professor David Whiteman, said they found the modifiable factors were responsible for 41 per cent of cancer deaths among Australian men and 34 per cent of cancer deaths in women.

“By far the biggest preventable cause of cancer deaths in Australia is tobacco smoke. Cancer caused by smoking and passive smoking killed 9,921 people in 2013 and accounted for 23 per cent of all cancer deaths,” Professor Whiteman said.

“The other major factors were poor diet, being overweight or obese, and infections, which each caused about five per cent of all cancer deaths in 2013.

“Poor diet was responsible for 2,329 deaths from cancer, being overweight or obese for 1,990 deaths, and infections for 1,981 deaths.

“In line with these findings, the cancers responsible for the largest numbers of potentially preventable deaths were lung, bowel, cutaneous (skin) melanoma, liver, and stomach cancers.

“The proportions of potentially preventable cancer deaths are higher among men than women because, on average, men smoke and drink more, spend more time in the sun, and don’t eat as well.”

Professor Whiteman said the findings highlighted the seriousness of the problem.

“Cancer is the biggest cause of death in Australia. It claimed 44,000 lives in 2013 and caused untold grief and heartache to many more,” he said.

“While in many cases cancer is tragically unavoidable, this study highlights what we’ve known for years: cancer isn’t always a matter of genetics or bad luck.

“This study shows that in theory, about 17,000 cancer deaths could be prevented each year if people followed accepted guidelines to minimise their exposure to risk factors.

“There is a lot people can do to reduce their risk of developing and dying from cancer.

“If you currently smoke, seek advice on how to quit. Limit your intake of red and processed meats and look for opportunities to incorporate extra fruit, vegetables and fibre into your diet. Most Australians don’t get enough exercise, so start introducing some simple physical activity into your routine and aim to maintain a healthy bodyweight. Finally, always remember to protect yourself from the sun.

“Even small improvements in these areas would substantially reduce the number of people who die prematurely from cancer each year.”

For more healthy lifestyle recommendations, members of the public can download QIMR Berghofer’s Guide to Reducing Your Cancer Risk.

The study has been published in the International Journal of Cancer. It was funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council and Cancer Council Australia.

Cancer Council Australia’s CEO, Professor Sanchia Aranda, said that while not all cancer cases are preventable, these latest research results should act as a powerful reminder to Australians that they can reduce their risk.

“This latest research builds on previous research commissioned by Cancer Council and conducted by QIMR Berghofer that showed that one in three cancer cases are preventable,” she said.

“With this latest data showing that 38 per cent of cancer deaths are attributed to avoidable risk factors, we can see that some of our most preventable cancers are also our most deadly. Australians need to remember that the best way to increase their chances of a long and healthy life is to take steps to reduce their risk of getting cancer or other lifestyle related diseases.”