One-third of cancers in Australia are preventable, research reveals

By @iamkarlatecson on
Red meat
A customer picks up a package of kangaroo steak from the meat section of a supermarket in central Sydney September 9, 2008. Think bush tucker is all witchetty grubs and kangaroo meat? A scientist who specialises in indigenous Australian food is on a mission to change your mind. Reuters/Daniel Munoz

About a third of cancers in Australia can be prevented if people avoid risk factors for the disease, a new study claims. Researchers at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute have identified 13 lifestyle factors that people can alter to prevent cancer. 

The team’s findings, published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, estimates that more than 116,000 Australians were diagnosed with invasive cancer in 2010. The study shows that smoking, ultraviolet radiation, body weight, diet and alcohol contributed to 90 percent of all preventable cancers.

The remaining 10 percent of cancers account for modifiable risks, the researchers said. This includes red and processed meat, inadequate intake of fibre, vegetables and fruit, lack of physical activity, infections such as hepatitis B and C, human papilloma virus and HIV, hormone replacement therapy, oral contraceptives and inadequate breastfeeding.

Nearly 2,000 cancer cases in Australia in 2010 were attributable to inadequate intake of fruit and vegetables, the study showed. Low levels of dietary fibre, meanwhile, were responsible for at least 1,000 bowel cancers.

Bowel cancer was a major issue in the country, according to Professor Sanchia Aranda, chief executive officer of Cancer Council Australia, which commissioned the study. “We have a particularly low participation in our national bowel screening program in Australia. Our target is 70 percent of the target population, and we’re sitting at about 33 percent at the moment,” she said in an interview with The Conversation.

Australia has the highest level of bowel cancer in the world with New Zealand, Aranda said, citing the country’s culture of barbecues with a high red meat component. According to the research, red and processed meats were significant risk factors for bowel cancer, accounting for about 17 percent of all such new diagnoses in 2010. If Australian adults consumed less than 65 grams of red and processed meat per day, around 800 fewer cases of bowel cancer would have been diagnosed in 2010, the study revealed.

Aranda also shared the alarming rise in rates of liver cancer in Australia. The study showed that the hepatitis virus contributed to around 30 percent of liver cancer diagnoses. Alcohol and tobacco were also responsible for 13 percent and 21 percent, respectively.

Aranda said this corrects the notion that the rising rates of liver cancer were largely due to infections. In France, recent reports suggest that about 50 percent of the liver cancer cases were caused by drinking too much alcohol.

The study also revealed that tobacco smoke is the only risk factor on the list with no safe level of intake. Meanwhile, there was no limit to recommended levels of fruit and vegetable consumption.

While the study was significant in its credibility, it did not present a magic formula for avoiding cancer,  Tim Crowe, an associate professor in nutrition at Deakin University, told The Conversation. He explained that avoiding cancer is about eating plenty of plant-based foods and fibre, being active, not drinking too much and trying to maintain as healthy a body weight as possible.

In addition to avoiding some cancers, the study’s recommendations can also be applied in reducing the risk of diabetes and heart disease, Crowe said.

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