1/2 of cancer deaths and maybe 1/2 of new cases could be prevented by exercise, watching food and drink, and not smoking

Half of all cancer deaths could be prevented “by applying insights that we’ve had for decades — no smoking, drinking in moderation, maintaining a
healthy body weight and exercising,” Carolyn Y. Johnson reports for The Washington Post, about a study published in JAMA Oncology.

Those measures could also cut new cancer cases by 40 to 60 percent. Those are big numbers, and especially important for Kentucky, which has some of the nation’s leading rates of cancer and death from it — and, not coincidentally, is among the national leaders in smoking and obesity.

“Some of the declines we have already seen in cancer mortality — the large decline in lung cancer — that was because of efforts to stop people from smoking,” Siobhan Sutcliffe, an associate professor in the division of public health sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, told Johnson. “Even while we’re making new discoveries, that shouldn’t stop us from acting on the knowledge we already do have.”

Sutcliffe was not involved in the study, which used “large ongoing studies that have closely followed the health and lifestyle habits of tens of thousands of female nurses and male health professionals,” Johnson reports. “They divided people into two groups: a low-risk group that did not smoke, drank no more than one drink a day for women or two for men, maintained a certain healthy body mass index, and did two-and-a-half hours of moderate aerobic exercise a week or half as much vigorous exercise.

“The team compared cancer cases and cancer deaths between the low- and high-risk groups and found that for individual cancers, the healthy behaviors could have a large effect on some cancers: The vast majority of cases of lung cancer were attributable to lifestyle, as well as more than a fifth of cases of colon cancer, pancreatic cancer and kidney cancer.

“Then, they extrapolated those differences to the U.S. population at large, finding an even larger proportion of potentially preventable cancer cases and deaths. For women, they estimated 41 percent of cancer cases were preventable and 59 percent of cancer deaths. For men, 63 percent of cancer cases were potentially preventable and 67 percent of deaths.”

The researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health noted some caveats: “The high-risk group in the study is healthier than the general U.S. population, so there are reasons the numbers may be slightly overestimated,” Johnson writes. “But Mingyang Song, the researcher who led the work, argues the numbers are a good approximation because they may be underestimating the effects of lifestyle, too, because they selected a narrow range of lifestyle factors.”

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