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Is the good life killing you?

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  • Is the good life killing you?

    Sun, sex, booze and food – our modern appetite for fun comes at a price. The alarming rise of lifestyle cancers

    Leah Hardy
    August 26, 2007

    More than any previous generation, we are choosing to enjoy life like there’s no tomorrow. Food, booze, sloth, sun and sex are all part of our hedonistic existences. But there’s a downside to all this good living – lifestyle cancers are on the rise. New figures from Cancer Research UK show that cancers linked to our affluent way of life are proliferating. The incidence of skin cancer has increased by more than 40%, and cases of mouth, womb and kidney cancer, associated with lavish diets and excess alcohol consumption, have all risen in the past decade.

    Half of all cancers are now said to be preventable. Lucy Morrish, who compiled the figures at Cancer Research UK, says: “While the rates of some cancers have fallen over the past decade, those of others are rising. Many cases could be prevented if people avoided excessive sun exposure, smoking and obesity, and limited their alcohol intake.”
    So, just what can you get away with? We offer a hedonist’s guide to what’s good and what’s bad for you.


    From baking Nigella’s chocolate cake to strolling down to the local farmers’ market for crusty bread, gooey cheese and organic butter, being a foodie has never been so fashionable. We tend to assume that if it’s organic, local and delicious, it can’t be all that bad for us. But the brutal truth is that eating too much is killing us. In nonsmokers, one in 10 cases of fatal cancer is caused by obesity. Two of the main risk factors for kidney cancer – up by 14% in a decade – are smoking and being overweight. Obese women are also twice as likely to develop womb cancer, which has become 21% more common in 10 years. The nutritionist Dr Marilyn Glenville says: “Excess fat around your stomach is a factory for oestrogen, which feeds breast cancer – and that is up by 11%.”

    If too much food causes cancer, the right kind may help to prevent it. Cut back on fat, increase the amount of fruit and vegetables in your diet and up your fibre intake, then you can eat well and cut your cancer risk. You can even scoff that chocolate cake – in moderation.


    Ah, the welcome sound of a cork popping at the end of a busy day. Relaxing with a glass of decent red during dinner, having a cold beer on a summer’s evening or sipping a weekend gin and tonic feels part of a civilised lifestyle. We aren’t alcoholics, we aren’t driving; so what’s the harm in the odd tipple? The trouble is, even small amounts of alcohol, as little as one drink a day, can increase the risk of breast cancer by 7% and that of bowel cancer by 10%. The more we put away, the higher the risk – and the amount we drink has doubled since 1960. The Oxford Textbook of Medicine estimates that 6% of cancer deaths in the UK – about 10,000 a year – are caused by alcohol. On the other hand, those who drink little and often outlive both heavy drinkers and teetotallers, thanks to the cholesterol-lowering qualities of alcohol.

    The types of cancer most closely linked to alcohol are those of the mouth, larynx, oesophagus, liver, bowel and breast, and new statistics show that the incidence of mouth cancer has risen by 23% in the past decade. Smoking and drinking together increase the danger even more. Cancer Research UK says that drinking more than six units of alcohol a day trebles the chance of contracting mouth cancer; for those who drink and smoke, the risk is 50 times higher. Alcohol is also thought to cause 2,000 cases a year of breast cancer in the UK.


    Modern living has made us lazy. Why walk to the postbox when it’s quicker to e-mail? Why carry shopping bags when Ocado delivers? We drive the 10-minute walk to the gym, and one interior designer recently revealed that he had installed a chute down to a basement swimming pool so that the millionaire owner didn’t have to bother with the stairs.

    About 70% of us fail to take the recommended 30 minutes of exercise, such as brisk walking, five times a week. Professor Jane Wardle, director of the health behaviour unit at Cancer Research UK, says: “Recent studies have shown a connection between low levels of physical activity and both breast and colorectal cancer. People who are highly physically active are at much lower risk.”

    That doesn’t mean that you have to slog away for hours in the gym. Researchers at the University of Bristol found that just half an hour of physical activity three or more times a week could reduce the risk of bowel cancer by half and that of breast cancer by a quarter. It could also reduce the risk of lung cancer by as much as 40%.


    Flights have never been so cheap, and foreign travel has never been so sexy. Who wouldn’t want to slip on a Liz Hurley bikini and hang out with the A list in St Tropez and Barbados? But that holiday in the sun may seem less inviting when you discover that the number of cases of melanoma – the deadliest form of skin cancer – has risen by 43% since 1995, making it the fastest-growing cancer in the UK.

    Rates have doubled for women and trebled for men since the mid1980s. Sara Hiom, director of health information at Cancer Research UK, says: “We’re concerned that cases of malignant melanoma are spiralling. Exposure to UV radiation in sunlight is the main cause of skin cancer. Most cases could be prevented if people protected themselves in the sun and took care not to burn.”

    Although basking in the midday sun is madness, the news isn’t all bad. Studies have shown that sunlight protects against breast, colon, bladder, womb, ovarian and stomach cancers. And 10 minutes of sunshine a day will give us all the vitamin D we need for strong bones and healthy muscles.


    Apparently, Brad and Angelina make noises like wild animals when they do it. Paris Hilton became a star when her sex tape hit the internet. And Calum Best’s list of conquests seems never-ending. It may all seem exciting, but the safe-sex message is getting lost.

    The number of cases of cervical cancer, caused by the sexually transmitted human papilloma virus (HPV), has fallen by 18% in the past decade, but there are still 2,800 new cases a year in the UK, and it is the second most common cancer in women under the age of 35. It is important to have regular smear tests – they reveal almost all cases of abnormal cells before they turn cancerous, which means they can be relatively easily treated.

    HPV is also the reason those who have had oral sex with at least five people raise their risk of contracting mouth cancer by 250% compared with those who have never given it a go. A study at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in Baltimore, revealed an even stronger link between oral sex and throat cancers, clearly attributable to a specific virus: HPV16. People who had had more than five oral-sex partners ran a 750% greater risk of developing these HPV-16-caused cancers.

    Thankfully, sex per se is good for us. A study at Wilkes University, in Pennsylvania, revealed that people who had sex once or twice a week were less likely to get colds and flu. Those participants had 30% higher levels of an antibody called immunoglobulin A, which is known to boost the immune system.
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