Professor Richard Martin, University of Bristol

Around 1 in 2 people in the UK will get cancer in their lifetime (Cancer Research UK). Over 40% of cancers are linked to a combination of 14 major lifestyle and environmental factors that are potentially preventable. The Integrative Cancer Epidemiology Programme (ICEP) uses cutting edge statistical methods and genetic data on 10s to 100s of thousands of people to provide high quality evidence on: the causes of cancers; factors influencing the progression of cancer; new ways to predict who will develop or die from these cancers; and new ways to prevent cancer and its progression. 

We have drawn together some key findings from the work ICEP has been doing over the last five years, highlighted below.

  1. Around 8% of cancers of the bowel, kidneys, ovaries, pancreas and uterus are due to overweight and obesity. We also found that obesity causes people to smoke and to smoke more heavily – each 4.6 kg/m2 increase in BMI was estimated to increase smoking frequency by around one cigarette per day. This is of potential importance when giving smoking cessation advice. 
  2. Overall levels of physical activity (e.g. 50 minutes extra moderate activity [such as fast walking] per week or an extra 8 minutes of extra vigorous activity per week) reduce risks of prostate, breast and colorectal cancer by about 50%.
  3. Women who report a “morning preference” have a 40% reduced risk of breast cancer, while women who sleep longer than the recommended seven to eight hours have a 20% increased risk of breast cancer per extra hour slept. Insomnia too may be a risk factor for other cancers via its influence on smoking habits, as it has been found to increase smoking heaviness and hamper smoking cessation. Improving sleep health is a potential additional target when giving smoking cessation advice.
  4. The cholesterol lowering drug – statin – reduces risk of ovarian cancer among both sporadic cases and in women with mutations in BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes who have an elevated lifetime risk of this disease. These findings will require further research to test whether statin therapy offers a viable approach for cancer prevention.
  5. DNA methylation changes are predictive of future lung cancer risk. A blood test that measures these changes could be used to identify people at high risk of lung cancer. This high-risk group could be targeted for lung cancer screening using CTscans. 

Over the next 5 years, ICEP will continue to build the evidence needed to predict, prevent and treat cancer. We will focus on cutting-edge statistical methods to distinguish cause from association, and use large-scale human population data and new technologies to provide robust evidence to improve prevention, screening, diagnosis and treatment in cancer. We’d be happy to discuss our findings further.

Read more in our new policy report: The causes of cancer


ICEP is funded by a Cancer Research UK Program Grant (C18281/A19169). 

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