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Cancer risk in the workplace: how simply sitting could be killing you

Most of us are aware of cancer risks associated with specific working environments. Asbestos is widely known as a highly dangerous, cancer-causing substance, and the dangers of pollutants or exposure to sunlight are broadly understood by those who routinely work with them – and with employers fully expected to offer necessary precautions. But how many of us are aware that the one thing we do most often at work, simply sitting down, is increasing our risk of cancer – and to such an extent that it has prompted US experts to announce “sitting is the new smoking”?

Dr Pixie McKenna – best-known as resident GP on the Channel 4 series Embarrassing Bodies, but also Clinical Director of Check4Cancer, which specialises in cancer screening and raising awareness in the workplace – says: “This is an example I use frequently in presentations to HR managers on the subject of cancer, and it is almost always met with a shocked response – but it is vitally important for employers to understand the impact the workplace is having on cancer risk, even where there may be no obvious hazards.”

In recent years it has been shown that shift work increases cancer risk, and having children later in life in order to have a career also increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer. According to US research, however, it now appears that simply sitting for extended periods significantly raises your risk of certain cancers.

In a report published in JNCI: Journal of the National Cancer Institute in 2014, the highest levels of sedentary behaviour were compared to the lowest, and researchers found a statistically significantly higher risk for three types of cancer – colon, endometrial, and lung. Moreover, the risk increased with each two-hour increase in sitting time, 8% for colon cancer, 10% for endometrial cancer, and 6% for lung cancer.

“We may think that an office environment is safe, but add in stress as a risk factor and it appears to be far more dangerous than previously assumed.” The message to employers, she says, is clear: “You may not be sending your employees down a mine, but you are still sending them into a place that is a cancer-provoking environment.”

Drawing on her personal experience, Dr McKenna adds: “Telling someone they have cancer is one of the worst things a GP has to do. Having performed this duty many times over the years, and I can honestly say it never gets any easier – and it’s happening more often year by year. Incidence of cancer is on the rise, with someone now being diagnosed every two minutes – the time it takes to boil a kettle.

“The one thing that can soften that blow, however, is to be told that it was detected early, and that your chances are therefore good. Most employers have people in their care for at least 40 hours a week, and so have a duty of care in terms of cancer prevention. A real opportunity now exists for them to be proactive with regard to screening and awareness, and do something before any member of the workforce gets cancer. Such efforts could have a huge impact on cancer survival rates, and save countless lives – as well as safeguarding their businesses.”

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