Harmful habits that could cause cancer in young people


Research suggests it takes just 21 days for a habit to form – but it can take a lifetime to break. The World Health Organisation (WHO) links one third of cancer deaths to obesity, low fruit and vegetable intake, lack of physical activity, and tobacco and alcohol use – the big five in terms of lifestyle and dietary causes.

Sanlam Chief Medical Officer Dr Marion Morkel says that genetic predisposition has only a small part to play. “More common than genetic predisposition is acquired behaviour – young people adopting the same lifestyle, habits and weaknesses as the adults in their lives. These behaviours include overeating, alcoholism and excessive smoking – some of the predominant habits linked to health problems.”

We break down some of the common habits young people have and shows whether these have a direct correlation with cancer:


WHO believes tobacco use accounts for up to 22% of global cancer deaths. Teenagers often take up smoking due to peer pressure – and if a parent smokes it increases this likelihood. Pack years are no longer deemed an accurate prediction of cancer risk as everyone’s susceptibility to the harmful effects of smoking differs. According to Dr Morkel even one cigarette is too many, “Smokers are 25 times more likely to die from lung cancer than non-smokers and smoking has been linked to an increased risk of contracting at least 13 other types of cancers including some forms of breast cancer. This is a habit we need to stop young people from forming as it’s very difficult to stop.”


In terms of a population’s alcohol abuse, WHO grades countries from one (not a major issue) to five (extremely bad) – South Africa scored a four.  Studies have shown that alcoholism is a major issue for SA’s youth (persons under 35-years), with binge drinking being of particular concern. Young people tend to binge drink on weekends, which means they’re poisoning themselves at regular intervals and accelerating negative changes within their bodies.  Although not highly associated with cancer, this can result in acute liver failure, pancreatitis and inflammation – all with a high mortality rate.

Adults over the age of 21 can handle small units of alcohol – younger people cannot. “Half a unit of alcohol in an adolescent’s brain is equivalent to a full unit for an adult. Medical professionals advise that young people do not drink at all because of the damaging effects – both physical and cognitive. For many youth, alcohol is a means to regulate mood and stimulate an emotional high. “We need to encourage young people to find healthy alternatives to nurture their mental health,” says Morkel.


Numerous studies have been conducted to investigate the effect of radiofrequency energy on humans, but, as yet, there is no substantive evidence linking the use of smart technologies like cell phones to cancer. However, technology has been linked to a more sedentary lifestyle. According to the Heart Foundation, South Africa has the highest obesity rate in sub-Saharan Africa, and one in four girls and one in five boys between the ages of two and 14 are overweight or obese.  Obesity-linked cancers include breast, oesophagus, kidney, pancreas, colon and rectum and endometrium cancer. Now is the time to get children off the couch and doing something active. Most experts recommend at least 45 to 60 minutes of moderate to intensive physical activity per day.

Morkel says, “Insurance companies have been linking real-world rewards to apps and wearable tech that gamify fitness in order to use young people’s tech obsession in a positive way. This is an example of how we can use digitisation to improve well-being going forward.”


WHO reports that cancer-causing infections such as the human papilloma virus (HPV) and hepatitis account for up to 25% of cancer incidents in low- to middle-income countries. HPV is a common sexually transmitted disease which is usually relatively harmless with treatment, but can lead to cancer – cervical cancer being the most common. Young women can abstain or, if they are sexually active, limit their sexual partners, use condoms and get the HPV vaccine to prevent contraction. The vaccine is administered over the course of three injections, to young people between the ages of nine and 26-years. The recommended age is 11 to 12 years.

For Dr Morkel, balance is everything. “Studies on longevity have repeatedly shown that those who live the longest also live the most balanced lives and are content within themselves. We need to set our young people up for a good future by helping them achieve balance and avoid addictive behaviours. Part of our role is to help them nurture their own mental health. Often bad habits are rooted in seeking positive experiences in pursuit of a better mental space. We need to assist with finding good things that can replace these highs like nutrition, exercise and uplifting social interactions.”

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