The risk of developing cancer can be decreased through several easily changed factors. Professor Ian Olver talks about strategies for preventing cancer, including lifestyle changes such as stopping smoking, eating a healthy diet, and engaging in physical activity.

Hello, I’m Professor Ian Olver, Chief Executive Officer of the Cancer Council Australia. I joined the Editorial Advisory Board of the Virtual Cancer Centre several years ago and now I would like to share with you my insights into how to prevent cancer.

I’m often asked the question, “what can I do to help prevent myself from dying of cancer?” Well there’s quite a lot that can be done.

Behaviours that you can change

Exercise imageIn Australia, more than a fifth of cancer deaths are due to smoking. Add to this sunburn, inadequate fruit and vegetable intake, too much alcohol, being overweight and not doing enough exercise, and more than one third of cancer deaths can be attributed to behaviour which you can change.

Currently, almost one in five Australians still smoke despite the very effective restrictions on cigarette advertising. Smoking is a major cause of cancers of the lung, head and neck area and contributes to several other cancers.

The second most modifiable risk factor after tobacco is being overweight, which is linked to major cancers such bowel and post-menopausal breast cancer. It is estimated that diet, physical activity, and body weight together, account for approximately three in ten cancers.

Obesity – From children to adults

One in five Australian children are overweight or obese and up to half of the obese children and three quarters of obese teenagers go on to be obese adults. As well as reducing cancer-causing obesity, vegetable and fruit consumption as alternatives to foods high in fat, sugar and salt, protects against bowel cancer, lung, head and neck, and stomach cancers, and a range of other cancers.

Physical inactivity, irrespective of being overweight, is a risk factor for bowel and breast cancer. You can reduce your cancer risk by doing around about three and a half to four hours of vigorous activity a week or a little over twice that much if it’s only moderate activity.

The long term impacts of too much alcohol consumption

Drinking alcohol has long been known to cause cancers of the head and neck, oesophagus and liver, but more recently the common cancers – breast cancer and bowel cancers – have been added to this list and in both breast and bowel cancer, only three to four drinks each day can increase the risk of getting these cancers by one and a half times.

Sun exposure, Vitamin D and cancer

Sun protection imageFor most people, sun protection to prevent skin cancer is required during the hottest part of the day, often between ten and three when the UV index is three or higher. So the Slip, Slop, Slap campaign and staying in the shade applies at these times and if this is adhered to, sensible sun protection behaviour is unlikely to put people at risk of Vitamin D deficiency.

Although Vitamin D is produced through sun exposure, most Australians probably achieve adequate Vitamin D levels through just a few minutes of sun exposure occurring during typical daily outdoor activities outside of the ten to three peak UV time.

Looking to the future

The new protection strategy is the Human Papillomavirus vaccine and this protects against HPV related cancers, particularly cancer of the cervix. It is important to continue screening for cancer of the cervix despite the introduction of this vaccine since it won’t protect everyone.

In addition, population screening strategies, which you should take part in, are the monographic screening program for breast cancer and the colorectal screening program. It’s worth knowing that there’s a search for suitable tests to screen for other cancers, which is ongoing.

In the end, there’s no doubt that prevention is the best way of controlling cancer.