Our final update of highlights from the National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI) Cancer Conference in Liverpool.
Lifestyle was a strong theme at this year’s conference, with talks exploring how making lifestyle changes is a powerful way to reduce cancer risk, as well as a way to improve outcomes for people living with and beyond the disease.
A lifestyle ‘package’ to prevent cancer
Professor Annie Anderson from the University of Dundee began a talk on lifestyle and cancer by bringing attention to the fact that whilst treatment, early detection, and outcomes for people with cancer have improved, there is still a long way to go in terms of preventing it occurring in the first place.
When people think of the big causes of cancer, they’re likely to think of tobacco. As the number one cause of cancer, smoking is certainly important, but the second biggest factor is living an unhealthy lifestyle. Prof Anderson explained that around ¼ of all cancers and 38% of breast cancers could be avoidable through appropriate nutrition and physical activity.
The importance of looking beyond tobacco in cancer prevention was echoed by others, with Prof Paul Aveyard reminding us that seeing nutrition as a whole is important, rather than focussing on cutting out or increasing specific foods or drinks. Prof John Saxton encouraged us not to think of recommendations of “30 mins of exercise a day” as an upper limit, and that doing more if you can will have even more benefit. He also raised the point that limiting sedentary behaviour is just as important as doing regular exercise, and in some cases, sitting still for long periods of time can start to reverse the benefit of having exercised. We were urged to look at all these factors together as a “lifestyle package”, rather than picking individual elements and changing only these.
We all know that living a healthier lifestyle will have many health benefits, but people aren’t always aware of what can increase or decrease their risk of cancer. Obesity is now linked to 13 cancers, breast cancer included, but a study by Cancer Research UK showed that 3 in 4 people aren’t aware of the link. Other data suggest only 18% of people are aware of the strong link between alcohol intake and breast cancer risk. Public health initiatives to inform people of the link between cancer and smoking has been widespread and generally successful, and those attending the conference were urged to make the same happen for other lifestyle factors. To find out what you could do to reduce your risk of breast cancer, visit our health information pages where you can download our risk information.
Stacking the odds against cancer returning
Adopting a healthy lifestyle can not only reduce a person’s risk of cancer, it can also help to reduce the risk of cancer returning if someone has had the disease. Prof Anderson quoted a patient who had told her “there are no promises or guarantees, but we just want to do what we can to stack the odds against cancer returning”. Prof Saxton spoke about the positive psychological benefits of physical activity that come hand in hand with the physical improvements in health. People who have had breast cancer often say that their life after the illness can be tougher than the treatment itself, but these “positive side effects” of exercise, such as a sense of control can be a powerful way to counter some of the negative effects of breast cancer treatment.
Maintaining a healthy life after cancer
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle after cancer treatment can be challenging; often people gain weight whilst undergoing treatment, or find side effects such as fatigue make physical activity a struggle. We heard that clinicians are sometimes wary of raising the issue of diet and exercise with their patients, as they worry this could be seen as inappropriate, unhelpful or damaging to their relationship. A session lead by Prof Annie Anderson countered this by presenting some successful examples of interventions that are supporting people living with or after a cancer diagnosis, to reduce their risk of recurrence and improve their wellbeing and quality of life.
Dr Jenifer Ligibel spoke about the BWEL trial, which is supporting women who have completed breast cancer treatment and are in the overweight or obese BMI category to lose weight. The course lasts two years and consists of regular telephone calls with a trained weight loss coach, as well as a selection of helpful materials such as meal replacements and cookbooks. She hopes that this trial will become one of the first to provide insight on whether weight loss reduces breast cancer recurrence, and improves outcomes in these women.
Professor Annie Anderson talked to us about the ActWELL trial she is running in Scotland, offering women who are attending breast screening the chance to take part in a lifestyle intervention, and evaluating how successful it is at helping them to lose weight and increase their physical activity. The intervention will involve face to face sessions with trained community lifestyle coaches from Breast Cancer Now, as well as telephone support throughout a year.
All together these sessions provided not only an overwhelming amount of evidence of the benefits of adopting a healthy lifestyle, but a reassuring selection of scientists and organisations who are working hard to make it easier for people who want to improve their health to do so.