Dr Christian Jessen, renowned for his no-nonsense approach to health issues, tackles common cancer myths head on
You’ve heard it all before – the most sensible way to help cut your risk of the big C is by quitting smoking, exercising regularly, eating healthily and protecting yourself from the damaging effects of the sun. But there are some unexpected risk factors for the disease you may not know about.
Research on cancer and its potential causes is ongoing and encouraging, but it can sometimes be confusing as to what’s really a concern and what’s simply a case of media scaremongering. Dr Christian Jessen delves deep into eight common cancer worries and gives his expert advice on what, if any, action you should take.
Skin cancer risk? Dental x-RAYs
A routine check-up at the dentist may involve an X-ray of your teeth, to get a better picture of your dental health. But recent research suggests there could be a link to a form of meningioma, a (mostly non-cancerous) tumour of the meninges, the protective membranes around the brain and spinal cord. Published in the American Cancer Society’s journal Cancer in 2012, the study compared 1,400 patients who’d been diagnosed with meningioma brain tumours with over 1,300 people who hadn’t.
The patients who had developed meningioma tumours were more than twice as likely to have had a form of dental X-ray at least once a year or more.
DR CHRISTIAN SAYS: ‘You would probably be exposed to more radiation on a long-haul flight than during a dental X-ray, so take this research with a pinch of salt.’
Heart disease and cancer risk? Processed Meat
Bad news for bacon buttie fans: your favourite treat may shorten your life. If you regularly tuck into processed meats, such as bacon, ham, burgers and sausages, you put yourself at an increased risk of developing cancer and heart disease.
Researchers from the University of Zurich studied data from over 400,000 Europeans and their results showed that ‘men and women with a high consumption of processed meat are at increased risk of early death, particularly due to cardiovascular diseases, but also from cancer’.
The study, published in BMC Medicine (BioMed Central) in March this year, found that those people who ate the most processed meat increased their chances of dying from heart disease by
72%, of developing cancer by 11% and of dying prematurely by 44% compared with those who didn’t eat much. These are shocking statistics for burger lovers, but bear in mind that the study also revealed that those who ate the most processed meat also led unhealthy lifestyles, often being smokers who performed little physical activity.
DR CHRISTIAN SAYS: ‘Try not to eat more than 20g processed meat a day (a single rasher of bacon weighs around a whopping 25g) and stick to lean cuts of meat.’
Prostate cancer risk? Fizzy drinks
Everyone knows fizzy drinks can rot teeth, but now there could be a more sinister reason for men in particular to avoid sugary thirst-quenchers. Research by Lund University, Sweden, suggests that drinking just one fizzy drink a day could increase a man’s risk of developing prostate cancer by around 40%.
Over the course of a 15-year study, published in the American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition in 2012, researchers asked more than 8,000 healthy men about their favourite foods and drinks. It turns out those who supped on the most carbonated drinks had a greater chance of developing prostate cancer.
Sugar content is high in these drinks, and it’s thought this releases insulin in the body which, in turn, feeds tumours. Fizzy drinks and their link to obesity are also an issue. A report published in the British Medical Journal in November called for a 20% tax on soft and fizzy drinks with the aim being that this would help cut obesity, diabetes and tooth decay.
DR CHRISTIAN SAYS: ‘As with all things when it comes to a balanced diet, it’s about moderation. Having the odd fizzy drink every now and then won’t do you any harm.’
Oesophageal cancer risk? Drinking hot tea
Made yourself a steaming cuppa but no time to let it cool? Research reported in the British Medical Journal shows that drinking very hot black tea at 70°C or more may increase eightfold the chances
of developing cancer of the oesophagus (the tube that carries food and liquid from your throat to your stomach).
Scientists from the University of Tehran, Iran, compared the tea drinking habits of people who had oesophageal squamous cell carcinoma to those without the disease. Professor Reza Malekzadeh, said: ‘Our results showed a noticeable increase in the risk of cancer associated with drinking hot tea.’
It’s thought that drinking scalding liquid could irritate the cells in the oesophagus and cause squamous cells in the mouth and throat cavity to mutate, eventually causing oesophageal cancer.
DR CHRISTIAN SAYS: ‘I’m not sure this really applies to most of us. Letting your cuppa brew or adding milk will bring down the temperature, so don’t worry.’
Prostate cancer risk? Taking vitamin E supplements
There’s growing concern that taking extra doses of certain vitamins (such as E) may actually do more harm rather than good. According to a 2011 study reported in the Journal Of The American Medical Association, men who habitually took 400 international units (IU) of vitamin E increased their long-term risk of developing prostate cancer by 17%. This is compared to men of the same age and same health who were given a placebo supplement to take.
The researchers aren’t sure exactly why vitamin E supplements may pose a risk, but explained that ‘the 17% increase in prostate cancer incidence demonstrates the potential for some seemingly innocuous yet biologically active substances such as vitamins to cause harm’.
DR CHRISTIAN SAYS: ‘The jury’s out on the long-term safety of vitamins, so it’s best to try to get all you need from a balanced diet. Vitamin D is the only one I sometimes recommend. Speak to your GP if you’re vitamin-deficient because of pregnancy, anaemia or other health issues.
Ovarian cancer Risk? Being tall
If you’re a woman of a certain height, your risk of developing ovarian cancer is greater purely because of the fact that you’re taller.
Research carried out by Oxford University’s Collaborative Group on Epidemiological Studies of Ovarian Cancer published in the Public Library Of Science Medicine journal suggests that for every 5cm a woman grows, her chance of contracting ovarian cancer increases by 7%. In fact, for every 10cm, the risk of developing a range of different cancers (such as melanoma and breast cancer) increases by 13%.
Lead researcher, Dr Gillian Reeves said: ‘We don’t yet know why height is related to ovarian cancer risk. However, it could be due to the biological effects of factors associated with height – such as increased levels of insulin-like growth factor or increased numbers of cells being at risk of becoming cancerous.’ The study also found that, among women who had never used hormone therapy, an increased body mass index was also a factor in having a higher chance of developing ovarian cancer.
DR CHRISTIAN SAYS: ‘As you have no control over your height, I’ve never found this a very useful piece of research and more work is needed. But remember, weight does play a part in cancer risk so keep your weight within a healthy range. Be vigilant about cancer prevention and screening and know what symptoms to look out for.’
Skin cancer Risk? Having gel manicures
A quick way to enjoy glossy, chip-free, nails for weeks, gel manicures are now a popular beauty treatment. But are perfectly manicured nails worth the price, as it’s now believed, the procedure increases your chance of skin cancer? ‘The ultraviolet (UV) light needed to cure the gel manicure is a risk factor for this disease,’ wrote New York University School of Medicine dermatologist, Dr Chris Adigun recently in the Journal Of The American Academy Of Dermatology.
Dr Adigun stated that the UV lights your hands are placed under could pose the same risk as using a sun bed and cause the same damage to skin cells. And in 2009, the same journal also published research saying that two women with no history of skin cancer were diagnosed with tumours on their hands after using UV nail lights regularly.
DR CHRISTIAN SAYS: ‘In real terms, the amount of UV light your hands are exposed to during a manicure is very small. You could apply a high factor sunscreen to the skin on your hands before having your nails done, or choose a salon that uses LED lamps instead of UV nail lights.’
Breast cancer risk? Working night shifts
Working three or more night shifts a week for more than six years could double your chances of breast cancer. And, unfortunately, if you describe yourself as a ‘morning person’,
you boost your risk fourfold.
Last year, research by the Institute of Cancer Epidemiology in Denmark looked at the medical records of more than 18,000 women who’d worked for the Danish Army from the mid-60s to the late-90s. Experts aren’t sure why there’s an increased risk. It may be because night workers are exposed to long periods of light when the body expects darkness – and this affects levels of the hormone melatonin.
Dr Rachel Greig, senior policy officer at Breakthrough Breast Cancer (www.breakthrough.org.uk) added: ‘We know shift work is linked with a higher risk of breast cancer but it may be that other lifestyle issues associated with shift work, such as lack of exercise, may also be a factor.’
DR CHRISTIAN SAYS: ‘If three or more night shifts per week are your only long-term option, you can do other things to reduce your risk of developing breast cancer. These include doing regular exercise and eating a balanced diet.’
at home guest editor, Dr Christian says…‘It is a little known fact that around 90-95% of cancers have their roots in lifestyle. This includes smoking, diet, alcohol, sun exposure, pollutants, infections, obesity, stress and physical inactivity. The evidence indicates that of all cancer deaths, as many as 30-35% are linked to your diet.’
Words: Olivia Holcombe Image: Terry Benson