Trick or treat? 6 truths about cancer risk that might scare you!

Trick or treat

Sidonie Sakula-BarryIn an era of fake news, it can be hard to separate the fact from the fiction. This is especially scary when it comes to our health. This Halloween, Sidonie from our health information team explains a few misconceptions about what causes and protects against cancer.

Media headlines that misrepresent research often result in an overload of conflicting information and confusion over what is trusted evidence. You can trust our research because we have the world’s largest source of scientific research on cancer prevention and survival through diet, weight and physical activity. From this research, an independent panel of world-leading cancer experts draws conclusions based on only the strongest evidence to inform our Cancer Prevention Recommendations.

Trick or treat?

1. Red wine is good for you – TRICK

Vampire drinking red wine

TREAT – Red wine, like any other alcohol, increases your risk of cancer

Let’s start with something definite. Alcohol is a cause of six cancers (breast, bowel, mouth and throat, oesophageal, stomach and liver cancer). That’s for all alcohol, whether it is red wine, beer or a spirit. There were headlines that drinking a glass of red wine a day would actually help heart health. However, the latest evidence has found that this only applies to certain population groups and for a very small amount of drinking. Whereas a healthy diet and lifestyle, including avoiding alcohol, can protect against both cancer and other diseases, like heart disease.


2. Organic fruit and veg protect you from cancer – TRICK


TREAT – eating at least 5 A DAY, whether organic or not, helps you add more fibre and nutrients to your diet, and can help to maintain a healthy weight, which in turn protects against cancer

There’s a lot of debate around organic foods and their protective qualities against cancer. Consumers may choose to buy organic foods because they believe it is safer and more nutritious than other foods and that artificial fertilisers and pesticides may increase the risk of cancer.

There’s currently not enough evidence to suggest that organic foods offer added protection against cancer. For cancer prevention, it’s more important to try and get your 5 A DAY, whether you’re choosing fresh, frozen, canned, conventionally grown or organic produce.


3. Artificial sweeteners give you cancer – TRICK

Sugar granules in a skull and crossbones design

TREAT – sugar-sweetened drinks cause obesity which is a cause of cancer

I have heard many say “you shouldn’t drink diet cola, it gives you cancer.” This comes from earlier cancer scares linked with certain sweeteners, which have since been discredited. Studies on artificial sweeteners, including saccharin and aspartame, have shown no convincing evidence of an association with cancer.

When it comes to cancer, the real concern is sugar so we recommend limiting drinking sugar-sweetened drinks and instead drinking water or unsweetened drinks. Sugar-sweetened drinks are high in calories but don’t fill you up and often accompany high-calorie fast foods. When consumed frequently this can lead to an increased risk of weight gain. Being overweight or obese increases the risk of at least 12 cancers.

If you can’t resist a soft drink, then opting for diet cola or light lemonade can be a good first step. Fizzy drinks aren’t great for your teeth so the best thing is good old fashioned water to keep you hydrated.


4. Following a vegan diet protects you from cancer – TRICK

Fun and healthy Halloween snacks

TREAT – making wholegrains, vegetables, fruit and pulses a major part of your diet protects against cancer

Following a vegan diet has gained a lot of attention in the last year. Can only eating plant-based foods and avoiding all animal-products including meat, dairy and eggs protect you against cancer?

Our research has no direct evidence that being vegan reduces cancer risk – it is possible to have an ‘unhealthy’ vegan diet. However, many characteristics of a healthy vegan diet including making wholegrains, vegetables, fruit and pulses (legumes) such as beans and lentils a major part of your usual daily diet can protect you against cancer. This is not only because plant-based foods contain fibre, which protects you against bowel cancer, but including more plant-based foods in your diet will help you to maintain a healthy weight.


5. Stress gives you cancer – TRICK

Man casting a monsterous shadow

TREAT – there are healthy ways to manage stress

One of the most common ‘myths’ is that psychological stress can increase the risk of cancer. There is no strong evidence for this. The reason we might think this is the case is that people under stress can sometimes behave in unhealthy ways, such as smoking, over-eating, or drinking alcohol. It is those unhealthy behaviours that increase the risk of many cancers. It’s important to try and find other ways of coping with stress, such as doing more exercise, using relaxation techniques or talking to someone.


6. Coffee gives you cancer – TRICK

Cup of coffee with a Jack O' Lantern design in the foam

TREAT – unsweetened coffee might protect you against some cancers

It is a common misconception that coffee causes cancer. However, there is no strong evidence that coffee increases cancer risk. In fact, there is strong evidence that coffee can protect you against womb (endometrial) and liver cancer! At the moment we don’t know enough about why so we don’t make any specific recommendations about drinking coffee. We still need to better understand how the quantity and regularity of consumption, type of coffee, and style of preparation affects the risk of cancer.