Fake cancer causes belief ‘rife’, research suggests

Drinking from plastic bottles and using microwave ovens are some of the fake causes of cancer people believe, research suggests.

In a survey of 1,330 people in England, published in the European Journal of Cancer, most people correctly said smoking was a cause.

But increasing numbers are getting the risk factors wrong.

Smoking, being overweight and overexposure to UV radiation are the biggest preventable causes of cancer.

Cancer Research UK said about four in 10 cases of cancer could be prevented through lifestyle changes and it was important to have the right information to “separate the wheat from the chaff”.

Researchers at University College London and the University of Leeds carried out the survey and found that more than 40% wrongly thought that stress and food additives caused cancer.

One-third incorrectly believed that electromagnetic frequencies (35%) and eating genetically modified (GM) food (34%) were risk factors, while 19% thought microwave ovens and 15% said drinking from plastic bottles caused cancer, despite a lack of good scientific evidence.

‘Worrying’

Smoking was, correctly, selected by 88% of those surveyed, 80% picked passive smoking and 60% said sunburn were causes of cancer – all proven.

Believing in fake causes of cancer did not mean people were more likely to have risky lifestyle habits, but those who were better informed about the proven causes of cancer were more likely not to smoke, the study found.

They were also more likely to eat more fruit and vegetables.

Dr Samuel Smith, from the University of Leeds, said: “It’s worrying to see so many people endorse risk factors for which there is no convincing evidence.

“Compared to past research, it appears the number of people believing in unproven causes of cancer has increased since the start of the century, which could be a result of changes to how we access news and information through the internet and social media.”

He added: “It’s vital to improve public education about the causes of cancer if we want to help people make informed decisions about their lives and ensure they aren’t worrying unnecessarily.”

Clare Hyde, from Cancer Research UK, said: “There is no guarantee against getting cancer – but by knowing the biggest risk factors we can stack the odds in our favour to help reduce our individual risk of the disease, rather than wasting time worrying about fake news.”

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Why some cancers are ‘born to be bad’

A groundbreaking study has uncovered why some patients’ cancers are more deadly than others, despite appearing identical.

Francis Crick Institute scientists developed a way of analysing a cancer’s history to predict its future.

The study on kidney cancer patients showed some tumours were “born to be bad” while others never became aggressive and may not need treating.

Cancer Research UK says the study could help patients get the best care.

“We don’t really have tools to differentiate between those that need treatment and those that can be observed,” said researcher and cancer doctor Samra Turajlic.

One cancer could kill quickly while a patient with a seemingly identical cancer could live for decades after treatment.

It means uncertainty for both the patient and the doctor.

Kidney cancer

It is most common in people in their 60s and 70s. Symptoms include:

  • Blood in your pee
  • Persistent pain in the lower back or side
  • Sometimes a lump or swelling in your side

    The work, published in three papers in the journal Cell, analysed kidney cancers in 100 patients.

    The team at the Crick performed a sophisticated feat of genetics to work out the cancer’s history.

    It works like a paternity or ancestry test on steroids.

    As cancers grow and evolve, they become more mutated and, eventually, different parts of the tumour start to mutate in different ways.

    Researchers take dozens of samples from different parts of the same tumour and then work out how closely related they are.

    It allows scientists to piece together the evolutionary history of the whole tumour.

    “That also tells us where the tumour might be heading as well,” said Dr Turajlic.

    Chance to change care

    The researchers were able to classify kidney cancer into one of three broad categories:

    • Born to be bad
    • Benign
    • Intermediate

      The “born to be bad” tumours had rapid and extensive mutations and would grow so quickly they are likely to have spread round the body before they are even detected.

      Surgery to remove the original tumour may delay the use of drugs that can slow the disease.

      The benign tumours are at the complete opposite and are likely to grow so slowly they may never be a problem to patients and could just be monitored.

      The intermediate tumours were likely to initially spread to just one other location in the body and could be treated with surgery.

      Michael Malley, 72, from London, took part in the trial at the Royal Marsden Hospital after being diagnosed with kidney cancer.

      He said: “Clearly studies like these are really important for understanding how kidney cancer evolves over time, and I hope this one day leads to better treatments for patients like me.”

      There is still the challenge of figuring out how best to tailor treatments to each tumour type, and even how to perform such tests in a hospital rather than a research lab.

      The tools used in this study are being investigated in other cancers, including lung cancer.

      Dr Turajlic says: “We’ve no doubt they will be applicable to other types of cancer.”

      The studies also revealed that the earliest mutations that lead to kidney cancer were happening up to half a century before the cancer was detected.

      Sir Harpal Kumar, the chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said the study was “groundbreaking”.

      He added: “For years we’ve grappled with the fact that patients with seemingly very similar diagnoses nevertheless have very different outcomes.

      “We’re learning from the history of these tumours to better predict the future.

      “This is profoundly important because hopefully we can predict the path a cancer will take for each individual patient and that will drive us towards more personalised treatment.”

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George Alagiah: Better screening ‘may have caught cancer’

BBC news presenter George Alagiah says his bowel cancer could have been caught earlier if the screening programme in England was the same as in Scotland.

The 62-year-old was first treated in April 2014 and returned to screen after 18 months, but he confirmed the stage four cancer had come back in 2017.

Screening is automatically offered from the age of 50 in Scotland, but only from 60 in England.

Over 40,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer in the UK every year.

Chances of survival for at least five years with stage four bowel cancer are less than 10%, while for stage one it is nearly 100%.

In an interview with the Sunday Times, Alagiah, who lives in London, said the system in Scotland saw screening take place every two years.

“Had I been screened, I could have been picked up,” he said.

“Had they had screening at 50, like they do in Scotland… I would have been screened at least three times and possibly four by the time I was 58 and this would have been caught at the stage of a little polyp: snip, snip.”

The presenter is now supporting a campaign by Bowel Cancer UK and Beating Bowel Cancer to make cancer screening available to everyone in England from the age of 50.

“We know that if you catch bowel cancer early, survival rates are tremendous,” he said.

“I have thought, why have the Scots got it and we don’t?”

What are the symptoms of bowel cancer?

  • Bleeding from the bottom
  • A change in your bowel habits lasting more than three weeks
  • Abdominal pain, especially if severe
  • A lump in your tummy
  • Weight loss and tiredness

    SOURCE: Beating Bowel Cancer

    Alagiah found out he had bowel cancer in 2014 after complaining of blood in his stools.

    He then underwent 17 rounds of chemotherapy and five operations to treat the disease in 2014, which had spread to his liver and lymph nodes.

Rise in cancers ’caused by weight’

Being overweight or obese is a growing cause of cancer in the UK while cases caused by smoking are falling, according to a large study.

Cancer Research UK found more than a third of all cases of cancer were avoidable – some 135,000.

The charity also found that excess weight now caused 6.3% of all cancer cases – up from 5.5% in 2011 – while smoking as a cause had declined.

It said more action was needed to tackle the “health threat” of obesity.

  • Millennials ‘set to be fattest generation’
  • World’s children rapidly turning obese

    Cancer Research UK found the country with the greatest proportion of preventable causes of cancer was Scotland with 41.5%, followed by Northern Ireland on 38%, Wales on 37.8%, and England on 37.3%.

    Across the UK, smoking remained by far the leading cause of preventable cancer, although it dropped from 19.4% in 2011 to 15.1%.

    Second was being overweight or obese, and third was exposure to UV radiation from the sun and sunbeds.

    The standard way of diagnosing if someone is obese is by calculating their body mass index (BMI). It measures whether you’re a healthy weight for your height.

    A BMI of more than 25 means you’re overweight and a BMI of more than 30 means you’re classified as obese, although there are some exceptions.


    ‘I felt responsible’

    Janet Boak, from Carlisle, was diagnosed with womb cancer at 51, after she noticed spots of blood four years after her menopause.

    She had a full hysterectomy, which successfully removed the cancer.

    It was during a subsequent check-up that she was told being obese had contributed to her risk of getting cancer. At the time, she was nearly 20 stone.

    “I felt like I was responsible for my own downfall,” Janet, 55, said.

    “It stuck in my gut a bit, thinking I could maybe not have been in this position had I sorted my lifestyle out.”

    Janet, a grandmother, has since lost nearly seven stone after she cut down on sugar, started cooking healthier meals from fresh ingredients and became more active.


    Cancer Research UK found overexposure to UV radiation caused about 13,600 cases of melanoma skin cancer a year – or 3.8% of all cancer cases.

    Other preventable causes of cancer included drinking alcohol and eating too little fibre, it said.

    However, overall the analysis found the proportion of preventable cases of cancer had fallen – from 42.7% in 2011 to 37.7%.

    Cancer Research UK said the figures showed smoking prevention strategies were working, but more work was needed to tackle the growing problem of obesity.

    Prof Linda Bauld, Cancer Research UK’s prevention expert, said: “Obesity is a huge health threat right now, and it will only get worse if nothing is done.

    “The UK government must build on the successes of smoking prevention to reduce the number of weight-related cancers.

    “Banning junk food TV adverts before the 21:00 GMT watershed is an important part of the comprehensive approach needed.”

    Prof Mel Greaves, a cancer biologist at the Institute of Cancer Research, in London, said the study was an “endorsement” of the idea that many cancers were potentially preventable.

    But he said the idea that obesity itself or eating too little fibre “causes” cancer was “somewhat simplistic” and still needed to be explored further.

    “If obesity could be avoided, the impact on cancer rates is uncertain – but they would almost certainly decline significantly,” Prof Greaves said.

    “Given the currently high rates of obesity in young people, this represents (like cigarette smoking) a major societal challenge beyond the bounds of the medical arena.”

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Rise in cancers ’caused by weight’

Being overweight or obese is a growing cause of cancer in the UK while cases caused by smoking are falling, according to a large study.

Cancer Research UK found more than a third of all cases of cancer were avoidable – some 135,000.

The charity also found that excess weight now caused 6.3% of all cancer cases – up from 5.5% in 2011 – while smoking as a cause had declined.

It said more action was needed to tackle the “health threat” of obesity.

  • Millennials ‘set to be fattest generation’
  • World’s children rapidly turning obese

    Cancer Research UK found the country with the greatest proportion of preventable causes of cancer was Scotland with 41.5%, followed by Northern Ireland on 38%, Wales on 37.8%, and England on 37.3%.

    Across the UK, smoking remained by far the leading cause of preventable cancer, although it dropped from 19.4% in 2011 to 15.1%.

    Second was being overweight or obese, and third was exposure to UV radiation from the sun and sunbeds.

    The standard way of diagnosing if someone is obese is by calculating their body mass index (BMI). It measures whether you’re a healthy weight for your height.

    A BMI of more than 25 means you’re overweight and a BMI of more than 30 means you’re classified as obese, although there are some exceptions.


    ‘I felt responsible’

    Janet Boak, from Carlisle, was diagnosed with womb cancer at 51, after she noticed spots of blood four years after her menopause.

    She had a full hysterectomy, which successfully removed the cancer.

    It was during a subsequent check-up that she was told being obese had contributed to her risk of getting cancer. At the time, she was nearly 20 stone.

    “I felt like I was responsible for my own downfall,” Janet, 55, said.

    “It stuck in my gut a bit, thinking I could maybe not have been in this position had I sorted my lifestyle out.”

    Janet, a grandmother, has since lost nearly seven stone after she cut down on sugar, started cooking healthier meals from fresh ingredients and became more active.


    Cancer Research UK found overexposure to UV radiation caused about 13,600 cases of melanoma skin cancer a year – or 3.8% of all cancer cases.

    Other preventable causes of cancer included drinking alcohol and eating too little fibre, it said.

    However, overall the analysis found the proportion of preventable cases of cancer had fallen – from 42.7% in 2011 to 37.7%.

    Cancer Research UK said the figures showed smoking prevention strategies were working, but more work was needed to tackle the growing problem of obesity.

    Prof Linda Bauld, Cancer Research UK’s prevention expert, said: “Obesity is a huge health threat right now, and it will only get worse if nothing is done.

    “The UK government must build on the successes of smoking prevention to reduce the number of weight-related cancers.

    “Banning junk food TV adverts before the 21:00 GMT watershed is an important part of the comprehensive approach needed.”

    Prof Mel Greaves, a cancer biologist at the Institute of Cancer Research, in London, said the study was an “endorsement” of the idea that many cancers were potentially preventable.

    But he said the idea that obesity itself or eating too little fibre “causes” cancer was “somewhat simplistic” and still needed to be explored further.

    “If obesity could be avoided, the impact on cancer rates is uncertain – but they would almost certainly decline significantly,” Prof Greaves said.

    “Given the currently high rates of obesity in young people, this represents (like cigarette smoking) a major societal challenge beyond the bounds of the medical arena.”

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Ultra-processed foods ‘linked to cancer’

A link between highly processed foods and cancer has been suggested by French researchers.

They classified foods including cakes, chicken nuggets and mass-produced bread as “ultra-processed”.

A study of 105,000 people hinted the more of such foods people ate, the greater their risk of cancer.

A lot of caution is being expressed about the study, but experts said a healthy diet is best.

What counts as ultra-processed

  • Mass-produced packaged breads and buns
  • Sweet or savoury packaged snacks including crisps
  • Chocolate bars and sweets
  • Sodas and sweetened drinks
  • Meatballs, poultry and fish nuggets
  • Instant noodles and soups
  • Frozen or shelf-life ready meals
  • Foods made mostly or entirely from sugar, oils and fats

    Diet is already known to affect the risk of cancer.

    Being overweight is the biggest preventable cause of the disease after smoking and the World Health Organization says processed meat does slightly increase the risk of cancer.

    But what about ultra-processed foods?

    The team – at Universite Sorbonne Paris Cite – used food surveys on two days to work out what people were eating.

    Those on the study, who were mostly middle-aged women, were followed for an average of five years.

    The results, in the British Medical Journal, showed that if the proportion of ultra-processed food in the diet increased by 10%, then the number of cancers detected increased by 12%.

    During the study:

    • On average, 18% of people’s diet was ultra-processed
    • On average, there were 79 cancers per 10,000 people each year
    • Upping the proportion of processed food by 10% would lead to nine extra cancers per 10,000 people per year

      The researchers concluded: “These results suggest that the rapidly increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods may drive an increasing burden of cancer in the next decades.”

      But they said the findings need to “be confirmed by other large-scale” studies and research was needed to establish what could be behind the link.

      A ‘warning signal’

      This study is far from the definitive take on ultra-processed foods and cancer.

      It cannot say ultra-processed foods are a cause of cancer.

      There are also factors that muddy the waters as people who ate a lot of ultra-processed foods had other behaviours that have been linked to cancer.

      They were much more likely to smoke, were less active, consumed more calories overall and were more likely to be taking the oral contraceptive.

      While the researchers did adjust their analysis for this they say their impact “cannot be entirely excluded”.

      Prof Linda Bauld, Cancer Research UK’s prevention expert, said: “It’s already known that eating a lot of these foods can lead to weight gain, and being overweight or obese can also increase your risk of cancer, so it’s hard to disentangle the effects of diet and weight.”

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        Overall she said the study was a “warning signal to us to have a healthy diet” but people should not worry about eating a bit of processed food “here and there” as long as they were getting plenty of fruit, vegetables and fibre.

        Dr Ian Johnson, from the Quadram Institute in Norwich, said the study had “identified some rather weak associations”.

        But he criticised the vagueness of the term ultra-processed.

        He said: “The problem is that the definition of ultra-processed foods they have used is so broad and poorly defined that it is impossible to decide exactly what, if any, causal connections have been observed.”

        For Prof Tom Sanders at King’s College London, the definition of ultra-processed foods throws up too many quirks.

        He said mass-produced bread would be classed as ultra-processed, but a home-made loaf or bread from a posh local bakery would not.

        “This classification seems arbitrary and based on the premise that food produced industrially has a different nutritional and chemical composition from that produced in the home or by artisans. This is not the case,” Prof Sanders said.

        Even the accompanying commentary in the British Medical Journal warned against jumping to conclusions.

        Martin Lajous and Adriana Monge from the National Institute of Public Health in Mexico, warned “we are a long way from understanding the full implications of food processing for health and well-being”.

        They said the study was simply “an initial insight”.

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