Genes or lifestyle: what defines cancer risk?

8 December 2011


A report from a large study looking at cancer risk attributable to lifestyle and environmental factors has been recently published by the Centre for Cancer Prevention research team.


The objective of this comprehensive study was to estimate the percentage of cancers in the UK in 2010 resulting from exposure to a number of lifestyle and environmental factors. The researchers looked at the consumption of tobacco, alcohol, meat, fruit and vegetables, fibre and salt as well as weight and level of exercise. Environmental factors were also considered, such as infections, radiation and occupational hazards.


The relative contributions of each factor to the total number of cancers diagnosed in the UK in 2010 were estimated based on high-quality epidemiological studies. The study concluded that nearly half of cancer cases were linked to 14 lifestyle and/or environmental factors.


Comment: The publication of this report is of great interest and importance and will have a positive impact on public health measures and initiatives. Genetic factors, however, also play a crucial role in the onset and progression of cancer and may, as the science progresses, provide a clue as to which members of the population are most at risk from lifestyle factors in common cancers (that is those that are not associated with specific high risk genes such as BRCA1 or BRCA2). Thus while it should not be doubted that lifestyle modifications will be the key strategy in cancer prevention, genetic risk stratification, by identifying those who might derive the greatest benefit from changing life style, could well improve the efficiency and effectiveness of health promotional advice which, to date, has not resulted in the necessary behavioural change. These are at present just assertions, but there is good a priori reason to believe that the ability to predict cancer risk and response to lifestyle change can be yet another arm of stratified medicine research programmes.

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