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The British Journal of Cancer recently published a review that links cancer rates in the UK to various lifestyle and environmental factors including diet, exposure to hormones and radiation, and tobacco and alcohol use, among others. While the reviewing doctors emphasize that lifestyle choices aren’t the only determining factor in cancer risk, it’s hard to ignore the indications of personal choice. Lead author of the review, Prof. Max Parkin, points out that cancer is not strictly in the genes, and that “over 40% of all cancers are caused by things we mostly have the power to change.”

The study considered 14 major modifiable lifestyle, dietary and environmental risks, as well as 18 different types of cancer. It’s no surprise that tobacco use is the #1 risk factor for both men and women; however, the relative importance of other exposures differs by sex. Other top risk factors for women are being overweight, having infections like HPV, exposure to sun, lack of fruits and vegetables and alcohol consumption.  For men, greatest risk for cancer came from lack of fruits and vegetables, followed by occupational hazards, alcohol, being overweight and sun exposure.

The data is specific to the United Kingdom, but it’s not hard to extrapolate which lifestyle choices affect global cancer rates. This study is the latest in a growing body of evidence that suggests we can stack the odds in our favor by making healthy personal choices and reducing exposure to the 14 modifiable risks.

You may have more control over some factors (like diet and exercise) than others (like occupational hazard and radiation exposure), but any changes toward a healthier lifestyle can have a positive impact. Professor Parkin points out that “cancers are caused by multiple factors acting simultaneously, and hence could be prevented by intervening on single or multiple risk factors.” That’s good reason not to be daunted by the risks that are beyond your control. Change what you can, whether it’s losing weight, quitting smoking or getting more fruits and vegetables in your diet, and you’ll be closing carcinogenic pathways in your body. In case you needed more inspiration for a New Year’s resolution, “each of the strategies to reduce your cancer risk also reduces the rate of other non-communicable diseases like cardiovascular, diabetic, renal and hepatic disease.”

Image: Valentin.Ottone