Nearly 40% of Australian cancer deaths are potentially preventable

Friday, 15 December, 2017

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Researchers from QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute have found that 38% of cancer deaths in Australia, or 16,700 each year, could potentially be avoided — mostly through lifestyle changes.

Writing in the International Journal of Cancer, the researchers detailed how they examined eight groups of ‘modifiable’ risk factors that research bodies have declared to be causes of cancer. These include tobacco smoke (smoking and passive smoking); dietary factors (low intake of fruit, vegetables and fibre, and too much red and processed meat); alcohol consumption; being overweight or obese; physical inactivity; UV exposure; infections (eg, hepatitis C and HPV); and, hormonal factors (eg, use of menopausal hormone therapy).

The researchers analysed data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and the Australian Bureau of Statistics to determine how many cancer deaths each year are caused by those modifiable factors and are therefore, in theory, preventable. They found the modifiable factors were responsible for 41% of cancer deaths among Australian men and 34% of deaths in women.

“By far the biggest preventable cause of cancer deaths in Australia is tobacco smoke,” said Professor David Whiteman, head of QIMR Berghofer’s Cancer Control Group. “Cancer caused by smoking and passive smoking killed 9921 people in 2013 and accounted for 23% of all cancer deaths.

“The other major factors were poor diet, being overweight or obese, and infections, which each caused about 5% of all cancer deaths in 2013.

“Poor diet was responsible for 2329 deaths from cancer, being overweight or obese for 1990 deaths and infections for 1981 deaths.

“In line with these findings, the cancers responsible for the largest numbers of potentially preventable deaths were lung, bowel, cutaneous (skin) melanoma, liver and stomach cancers.

“The proportions of potentially preventable cancer deaths are higher among men than women because, on average, men smoke and drink more, spend more time in the sun and don’t eat as well.”

The study builds on previous research commissioned by the Cancer Council and conducted by QIMR Berghofer that showed that one in three cancer cases are preventable. It also comes not long after UK researchers revealed that diabetes and high body-mass index were the cause of 5.6% of new cancer cases worldwide in 2012 — equivalent to 792,600 cases.

Professor Whiteman said the findings highlight the seriousness of the problem, noting that “while in many cases cancer is tragically unavoidable, this study highlights what we’ve known for years: cancer isn’t always a matter of genetics or bad luck”.

“This study shows that in theory, about 17,000 cancer deaths could be prevented each year if people followed accepted guidelines to minimise their exposure to risk factors,” he said.

“If you currently smoke, seek advice on how to quit. Limit your intake of red and processed meats and look for opportunities to incorporate extra fruit, vegetables and fibre into your diet. Most Australians don’t get enough exercise, so start introducing some simple physical activity into your routine and aim to maintain a healthy body weight. Finally, always remember to protect yourself from the sun.

“Even small improvements in these areas would substantially reduce the number of people who die prematurely from cancer each year.”

For more healthy lifestyle recommendations, download QIMR Berghofer’s ‘Guide to Reduce Your Cancer Risk’.

Image credit: ©

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