Encouraging patients at risk of cancer to take action to reduce their weight and do more exercise can help cut their chances of developing the disease in future, research suggests.
A new study published in the British Medical Journal found that giving patients at risk of bowel cancer advice on diet and exercise led to an average weight loss of 3.5kg in a year.
It is estimated that almost half of bowel cancers could be prevented by maintaining a healthy weight and diet.
The researchers, from Dundee University, said the NHS should do more to encourage people to take action to reduce their risk of cancer, rather than just treating the consequences.
Obesity is a key risk factor in bowel cancer and other forms of the disease, including breast cancer. It is thought that reducing consumption of red meat and alcohol could also help prevent large numbers of bowel cancer cases.
The BeWEL study looked at whether interventions to encourage patients at increased risk of bowel cancer to make a sustained effort to reduce weight and increase physical activity would have an impact on their health.
The 300 male participants were found, through screening, to have lesions which increased their chances of developing bowel cancer in the future. The men were also deemed to be at risk due to being overweight.
Over a period of one year, half of the men were scheduled for regular meetings with lifestyle counsellors and received monthly phone calls in efforts to get them to make lifestyle changes to reduce their risk of bowel cancer.
The other half of the group were just given a leaflet encouraging them to lose weight.
The researchers found that the first group saw “significant and sustained” weight loss, improvements in blood pressure and blood glucose as well as changes in diet and levels of physical activity.
Average weight loss in this group over the course of the year was 3.5kg. This was 2.7kg more than patients in the control group, who were given the leaflet and no other support.
The researchers said the findings showed the importance of combining cancer prevention messages with screening programmes to deliver the strongest benefits to patients.
Lead researcher Annie Anderson, professor of public health nutrition at Dundee University, said: “Weight management programmes in secondary care are common in the context of diabetes but they do not feature in the cancer screening setting, despite the fact that obesity is a risk factor in colorectal and other cancers,” she said.
“The potential for healthcare systems to promote appropriate diet and physical activity is an area that is underdeveloped.”
Prof Anderson pointed out that even the group who were just given the leaflet succeeded in reducing their weight: “If… everyone coming in with this problem could be given something about lifestyle and weighed, even that would have some effect.”