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Cancer prevention is a personalised decision

"Have you heard of the bulletproof coffee? If you haven't, you ought to try," said Mr. H during our first clinical consultation, back when I was still in medical residency training. Picture a well-built man representing a walking image of perfect health – that's Mr. H. He ran 5 kilometres a day, bicycled to work and ate kale. And yes, he drank his formulation of the bulletproof coffee every morning.

Within ten minutes of our first clinical consultation, I found out that he carried a BRCA2 genetic mutation, an early warning signal he learned through his sister who had breast cancer. With this mutation, he was at an elevated risk of developing early prostate cancer and breast cancer. Mr. H has been a patient at our teaching hospital for years. He would test every single medical trainee on their knowledge of BRCA mutations before telling them about the preventative benefits of his bulletproof coffee. He was convinced that his fit and clean lifestyle would keep cancer away. At his last consultation, his prostate-specific antigen or PSA screening test was still within normal range.

Does drinking coffee protect one from cancer?

Searching for an answer to this seemingly straightforward question turned up mixed results. At first sight, whether you choose to sip regular or decaf can make a big difference! Before you start sorting through your coffee stash and throw out the decaf packs, you should know that the medical evidence behind coffee and cancer risk still needs more rigorous studies to demonstrate a definitive relationship. While these results bring us no closer to a clear answer (sorry coffee aficionados), they do reflect our continued efforts to better understand the impact of our lifestyle choices on cancer risk.

Our exercise routines, our sleep patterns, our culinary choices – each of these lifestyle decisions is deeply personal and reflects our ways of living. More and more, we have also improved our understanding of the impact our lifestyle choices have on cancer risk. Thanks to our research on the Big Six Lifestyle Factors, we know that a lack of physical activity, irregular sleep patterns, poor nutrition, the use of harmful substances like alcohol and tobacco, and exposure to air pollution all elevate our risk of developing cancer. Extending beyond physical lifestyle choices, we've also explored the impact of negative mental wellbeing and chronic mental stress on cancer risk. The results are consistent with what you might expect: chronic stress has been linked to increased risks of developing cancer in some studies.

What links these lifestyle choices – exercise, sleep, nutrition, substance use, environment, and mental wellbeing – together is that they are modifiable by our own actions and motivation. Starting today, take stairs instead of the elevator. Commit to a regular bedtime and wake-up alarm. Cut back on drinking and smoking. Meditate, even for just five minutes a day. These actions may seem trivial, but their synergistic effect over time will exert a positive impact on the future risk of developing cancer. As my colleague John Schoonbee has pointed out, cancer prevention is just as important as finding a cure for those diagnosed with it, especially when worldwide healthcare systems are severely constrained by the COVID-19 pandemic.

So how can insurers empower customers in making healthier lifestyle choices? With the popularity of wearables and health management apps, insurers can now make healthy living a more personalised decision with the right motivation in place. Insurers have the opportunity to make dynamic, personalised, data-driven protection solutions more specific and accessible than ever before. With the improved underwriting capabilities, insurers can provide more engaging customer journeys for consumers throughout their evolving life stages.

Driving progress with actions

On this World Cancer Day, let's remember and celebrate that we have more tools than ever at our disposal. In our persistent fight against cancer, 2021 is the year of actions from every individual, no matter how big or small. Together, all of our actions matter. At Swiss Re, our goal is to make the world more resilient. We have been continually expanding our risk assessment and underwriting models backed by rigorous evidence-based research across global life and health insurance markets. We are committed to continuing our research to improve our understanding and management of personalised health risks – so join us on this journey to make progress together.

And yes, you can have that coffee!


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