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Ireland is eating more, drinking more, and smoking more as we cope with unseen impacts of COVID-19 on Cancer Risk

  • Impact of poor lifestyle choices highlighted by the Marie Keating Foundation, as new campaign ‘Your Health: Your Choice’ is launched to encourage better habits to reduce our risk of future cancers
  • New research shows 1 in 3 people have gained weight since the emergence of COVID-19, with one quarter of adults saying they have gained as much as 5kgs or more
  • Nationally representative study on health habits since the start of COVID-19 shows a worrying trend in behaviour as cancer charity urges everyone to prioritise what they can control in relation to their personal health during the ongoing pandemic
  • Uptake of recommended vaccinations, including HPV can play key role in prevention as recently launched World Health Organisation initiative aims to eliminate cervical cancer by 2030
  • With screening services once more paused for routine screening, 26% of all those polled, say that they have turned down the opportunity to attend a screening as a result of COVID-19 fears last year

  The Marie Keating Foundation has today launched a new campaign to highlight the importance of positive lifestyle choices and the implications they can have on our personal health in preventing certain cancers now and into the future. This has come into sharp focus as we enter 2021 in the midst of our third lockdown in nine months, and with our mental and physical health all vulnerable to the unseen consequences of lockdown and prolonged isolation.

Speaking on behalf of the Marie Keating Foundation, Helen Forristal, Director of Nursing Services, said: “It has never been more important for us all to take a serious look at the choices we are making in relation to our own personal health. As we start 2021 in another lockdown, the prioritisation of COVID-19 and its impact on our lives will continue for at least the next few months, if not longer. But there is so much we can do while at home and safe to ensure we are reducing our risk of cancer into the future and keeping as well as we can. The trends revealed in this new research are deeply worrying and we are urging the public to make sure that 2021 is the year that we make better, more sustainable lifestyle choices, get fitter and healthier, attend screening when they can and have children vaccinated when offered, – all in an effort to reduce our risk of cancer

Expert in Positive Health & Lifestyle Medicine, Dr Mark Rowe said ‘the impact of COVID-19, and all of the restrictions on our personal freedoms that have come along with it, has definitely caused a sense of COVID related burnout for many, struggling to maintain pre-pandemic routines and activities. Feeling more tired, irritable and anxious with a negative impact on health and wellbeing. The results of this research also illustrate the effects that being under constant stress can have. We have a physiological reaction to toxic stress which depletes willpower, making it harder to motivate ourselves and make positive lifestyle changes. It has never been more important to become an active participant in your own health and wellbeing. The benefits of taking small positive steps to improve your health can pay a rich long-term dividend. Reduce your risk of many chronic health conditions, including cancer. Think more clearly, feel more positive and simply be a better version of you in the world. Never stop starting!’

As part of the ‘Your Health: Your Choice’ campaign, which is supported by MSD Ireland, the Marie Keating Foundation has today revealed some worrying new insights into the previously unseen negative impacts of COVID-19 as we continue to battle and live with the virus at home each day.

We have put on weight:

 When it comes to weight gain, over the past number of months and as a direct result of our lifestyle decisions since lockdown, one third (32%) of us say that we have put on weight.

66% of those who claim to have put on weight since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic claim that they have gained between 3-5 kgs. In fact, over a quarter (26%) have admitted that their personal weight gain is 5kgs or higher.

Increased weight gain can be the result of several factors since the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the contributing factors to the above weight-gain could be that we are now more stationary than before the pandemic. Almost 4 in 10 adults (38%) claim they are more stationary and just over a third (34%) say that they are less active/take less exercise than they did before the pandemic.

25% of adults also claim to be sitting for more than six hours a day (recommended average is <4 hours daily), and over 1 in 10 (11%) state to only exercise a maximum of 60 minutes per week (recommended average is >150 minutes weekly, which can be broken down to manageable intervals e.g. 30 minutes 5 times a week).

The Marie Keating Foundation is encouraging the public to start 2021 the right way by ensuring they get in the recommended 10,000 steps a day for 20 consecutive days by walking, jogging, or running. The Your Health: Your Choice Challenge costs €20 to enter and each participant will also get a 21-day nutrition, stretching and warm-up plan. Register here to take part.

 We are binging more on alcohol and junk food:

Aside from being more stationery while working from home, there has also been a rise in the amount of junk food being consumed. 29% of respondents say they are snacking more at home and 27% say they are eating more sugary foods like biscuits and chocolate since the beginning of the pandemic.

Maintaining a healthy diet can be difficult at the best of times, but 26% of the nation has said that, since the COVID-19 pandemic, they have found it harder to remain motivated to make healthy choices.

In terms of alcohol, a quarter (25%) of all adults claim that they are drinking the same amount as they were before the COVID-19 pandemic, but 1 in 8 (12%) people claim that they are drinking more now than they were before. 

We are smoking more:

Smoking levels have also been on the increase amongst smokers, with two thirds (66%) of those who smoke claiming they are now smoking more per day than they were before the pandemic.

In fact, of those who smoke, 44% have said that the number of cigarettes they use a day has increased by at least 6 – 10 cigarettes, while as many as 13% of smokers say that the number of cigarettes, they smoke each day has increased by as many as 20 or more.

Lifestyle and Cancer:

Like many people, you may feel that cancer is down to bad luck or genes. While this can often be the case, 4 in 10 cancers could be prevented if we made changes to seven aspects of our everyday life. That is why the Marie Keating Foundation created the ‘Your Health: Your Choice’ campaign.

Scientists estimate that we can help prevent four out of ten cancers by:

  • Not Smoking
  • Eating a healthy diet and being a healthy weight
  • Being physically active
  • Avoiding too much sun
  • Limiting how much alcohol you drink
  • Taking up cancer screening services
  • Being up to date on all recommended vaccinations, such as HPV

While positive strides have been made in the search for solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccination against other preventable diseases such as HPV still needs to be prioritised. In Ireland, HPV infection caused up to 420 cancer cases in men and women each year between 2010 and 2014 with as many as 130 people dying in Ireland each year from HPV related cancers[1]. Despite this, 25% said they were not aware that the HPV vaccine can help protect against 90% of high-risk strains of HPV, which can develop into cervical and other cancers according to the new research carried out by the Marie Keating Foundation.

Without regular vaccinations taking place, this number could grow in the future as could the prevalence of other vaccine-preventable diseases.

“Cervical cancer which is predominantly caused by HPV is the one cancer the world can eliminate. Furthermore, the World Health Organisation recently launched a global initiative aimed at eliminating cervical cancer by 2030 by focussing on prevention through HPV vaccination and screening and treatment of pre-cancerous legions. It is now time for Ireland to develop a HPV elimination strategy to achieve the goals and targets set by the WHO strategy: by the year 2030, all countries can achieve 90% HPV vaccination coverage, 70% screening coverage, and 90% access to treatment for cervical pre-cancer and cancer, including access to palliative care.” Liz Yeates, CEO Marie Keating Foundation.

Our Mental Health has suffered:

One third (31%) of people feel their mental health has suffered since the start of COVID-19. This could be a significant factor for people when it comes to maintaining healthy habits and behaviours across a range of aspects including exercise, diet, etc.

Cancer Screening:

COVID-19 is having an impact on cancer care in Ireland and our ability to prevent cancer. Services have once again been paused for routine screenings, as a result of the rising COVID-19 numbers and the pressure this is putting on our health service. Screening plays an essential role in cancer prevention and early detection, which can be key to saving lives. The new research from Marie Keating Foundation indicates that when screening was paused last year, as many as a quarter (26%) of all those invited to screening have turned down the opportunity to attend or cancelled a routine health screening as a direct result of COVID fears.

Those aged 25-34 (10%) are most likely to claim that they turned down the opportunity to attend a screening because of COVID-19. However, almost 9 in 10 (88%) adults agree that they would feel comfortable engaging with, or advising a loved one to engage with, and take part in a screening service since they have returned after the initial COVID-19 outbreak.

When looking at screening in Ireland, on 18th December 2020, the National Screening Service reported that[2]:


  • Breast Check screened 139,000 fewer participants than planned, pre-COVID.
  • Cervical Check screened 153,000 less women in 2020 than in 2019.
  • Bowel Screen assessed 81,000 fewer participants than pre-COVID targets.

As part of the ‘Your Health: Your Choice’ campaign, the Marie Keating Foundation is urging people to ensure that they and their family members do their level best to attend hospital visits and screening appointments, once services resume, across all treatment/healthcare areas.

The ‘Your Health: Your Choice’ campaign is supported by MSD Ireland.

For more information on what these changes are and how you can fit them into your life to reduce your risk of developing cancer please visit: