White women could substantially reduce their risks of developing breast cancer by taking a leaf out of the books of women from other ethnic groups. A study led by Dr Toral Gathani from the University of Oxford has shown that lifestyle factors are responsible for the differences in breast cancer rates in different ethnic groups, specifically between white, south Asian and black. Data from the Million Women Study (see panel on fears over the future of this and similar studies) showed that South Asian women had an 18 per cent lower rate of breast cancer compared with white women, and black women had a 15 per cent lower rate of breast cancer compared with white women. Many of the black and South Asian women in the study were first-generation immigrants. And it is likely that as second and subsequent generations of women of ethnic minority origin change their lifestyles, their risk of breast cancer will increase.

Drinking less alcohol and having more children are among the factors which are proven to have an impact on the likelihood of developing this type of cancer and are marked lifestyle differences between the groups in question. Dr Gathani said: “In this study of largely postmenopausal women in England, we see that the lower risk of breast cancer in South Asian and black women is largely explained by differences in lifestyle and reproductive patterns. It’s important for women of all ethnic groups to understand what are the modifiable risk factors for breast cancer, such as obesity and excessive alcohol consumption, and to take measures to reduce their risk.” Factors known to reduce the subsequent risk of breast cancer include starting periods later, giving birth a greater number of times, greater duration of breastfeeding, shorter stature and lower body mass index while factors known to increase the risk of breast cancer include greater alcohol consumption, use of menopausal hormone therapy, and a family history of the disease.

Record diagnosis

The news that lifestyle differences can have such a substantial impact on the chances of developing breast cancer comes as figures from Cancer Research UK show that for the first time in the UK a third of a million people a year are being diagnosed with all types of cancer. An ageing population is being given as the main reason for the increase in the numbers of cancers being detected. As more people live longer they stand a greater chance of developing some kind of cancer as they age. That increase is around 50,00 cases a year since 2001. Overall rates of people being diagnosed with cancer have climbed by a more than a third (35 per cent) between 1975 and 2011. In 1975, around 295 per 100,000 were diagnosed with the disease. This increased to almost 400 per 100,000 in 2011. This increase is partly because of risk factors such as drinking alcohol and being overweight.

Research has helped to improve the outcome for many. In the 1970s 23 per cent of cancer patients survived ten years. This climbed to around 46 per cent in 2007. Dr Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: “These figures reinforce the vital need for more research to better prevent, treat and cure cancer. As the population ages, more people than ever before will be told: ‘you have cancer’. Research is the only way we’ll be able to reduce the devastating impact of the disease. One day we will beat cancer. The more research we do, the sooner that day will come.” Cancer statistics are collected separately in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and the data are subject to a number of processed to ensure they are robust. This means that there is a delay of up to 18 months before full UK figures can be published. As a result of this the statistics in this study refer to 2011.