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Shift work and increased cancer risk

This week, Sarah Montague – a night-time presenter for the BBC – investigated the impact of shift work on health, and found that regular disruption of normal sleep patterns can significantly raise your susceptibility to serious illness, including cancer.

In the programme The Night Shift, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 onMonday 27 July,8.00pm-8.30pm, Sarah Montague, explored how sleeping affects our bodies in the company of two fellow night-workers.

What she discovered was shocking. If the body clock is disrupted, we not only suffer from fatigue and poor concentration – our organs cease to function properly and we can no longer control our metabolism. This can leave night shift workers more prone to obesity, diabetes and heart disease, and in 2007 the World Health Organisation concluded that prolonged night shift was also a probable cause of cancer.

In the programme, Professor Russell Foster, one of Britain’s leading sleep experts explained: “The assumption has always been that our bodies adapt to the night shift. But now, neuroscience is beginning to unravel the fundamental mechanism of sleep... and the extraordinary finding is that we don’t adapt.”

There are an estimated 3.5 million people doing shift work in the UK. Recent research has shown that the brains of workers who'd done 10 years of night shifts had aged by an extra six-and-a-half years, whilst a major study in the US following 75,000 female nurses who work shifts over the past 22 years showed that one in ten of those who have worked rotating shifts for six years will die early. More recently, new research also confirmed “unequivocally” that disrupted sleep patterns lead to cancer.

Gordon Wishart, Professor of Cancer Surgery and Medical Director of Check4Cancer, comments: “A third of women in the UK now work shift patterns that include an element of night shift work, and we now know that over a prolonged period of time this increases breast cancer risk by 50% (in men, shift work carries a similar increased risk of prostate cancer). The average risk at the moment is one in eight – 12%. If you have performed prolonged shift work, that goes up to 18%. But if you start with a higher risk – say 30%, as a result of having family members who have had breast cancer – that goes up to 45%. Members of flight crew have the same increased risk of breast cancer as shift workers – almost 50%.

The programme highlighted cases in which the Danish government paid compensation to night-workers who developed breast cancer, and suggested that similar claims are bound to arise in the UK.

“Clearly this is an area in which employers must take greater responsibility,” says Prof Wishart, “not only to protect their employees’ health but also to eliminate the risk of claims made against them by employees who have become ill as a result of their working patterns. The very best way they can do this is by offering cancer awareness and education, in addition to early detection testing in the workplace. Shift work is a reality that is not simply going to go away, and for a large proportion of working people may be the only option available to them – but early cancer detection means any issues can be treated in good time. Put simply, such measures will save lives.”

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