Can cancer be prevented? Decades of research have shown that a person’s chances of getting cancer depends on a mishmash of their genes and their environment, but also certain aspects of their lives, many of which they can control.
Today saw the publication of a landmark Cancer Research UK-funded review by Professor Max Parkin, outlining the latest evidence behind the preventable causes of UK cancers.
As our press release says, these latest calculations, based on predicted cases for 2010, show that smoking, diet, alcohol and obesity are behind more than 100,000 cancers. This is equivalent to one third of all cancers diagnosed in the UK each year.
And this figure further increases to around 134,000 when taking into account all 14 lifestyle and environmental risk factors analysed in this study.
There’s more in-depth information about the statistics on our website, and our healthy living pages explain the take-home messages from the research.
But to help make sense of the vast quantity of information contained in the 91-page report, we’ve also put together a graphic that shows the proportion of cancers that can be prevented through lifestyle changes. It’s worth spending a minute or so looking at the key to understand how to interpret the graphic (which you can download as a larger PDF version).
Information is power
Providing this type of information is categorically not about blame – every two minutes someone in the UK is diagnosed with cancer, and each of them have a unique set of circumstances that led to their cancer. There are many things that together affect a person’s chances of developing cancer – some of them can be controlled, some can’t.
Leading a healthy lifestyle is not a cast-iron guarantee against cancer. But it reduces the risk of the disease. If you think about cancer risk like a hand of cards, some people are dealt a worse hand because of their genes, some people a better one.
But in both cases, these people can do things to reduce their individual risk of cancer. So this type of information is crucial in equipping people with the information they need to stack the odds in their favour.
Such information is also crucial to guide policymakers in planning public health interventions. For instance, decades of work documenting the risks of smoking tobacco and the benefits of giving up – much of it by our scientists – has contributed to increased acceptance of tobacco as a major health hazard and led to many successful tobacco control measures.
We’re now starting to see the effects of these policies in lung cancer rates amongst UK men. But there’s more work still to do.
We’re also aware of the irony of publishing this research just before Christmas, when many of us enjoy one too many mince pies, or a few too many glasses of mulled wine. In our press release, we explain that we’re not expecting everyone to watch what they eat and limit alcohol intake during the festive season, and we don’t want people to feel guilty about indulging a bit more than usual.
Rather than focus on short-term behaviour changes, healthy living is about long-term lifestyle tweaks that can really make a difference. Regularly taking the stairs rather than using the lift, drinking a couple fewer beers or wines every week, eating a little more fruit, etc.
Incorporating a series of such healthy behaviours into your daily life can make a significant difference to your future risk of cancer.
What you need to know
Finally, below we’ve pulled together some of the important information you need to know about the 14 lifestyle and environmental risk factors analysed in this study:
- Tobacco – although the number of smokers has fallen dramatically over the last 30 years, and lung cancer rates have fallen too, UK smoking rates have stagnated over recent years at around 22 per cent. We’re doing all we can to help people quit and protect children from the influences that lead them to become smokers. That’s why we’re campaigning for plain packaging – so that young children won’t be exposed to the tobacco industry’s last marketing channel.
- Overweight – obesity and being overweight was the second biggest cause of cancer in the UK in the new study. Despite this, people are still unaware that their weight can have such a strong influence on their cancer risk. In a Cancer Research UK survey, only 3 per cent of people named obesity as something that can increase cancer risk. We’re using campaigns like Active Fat to help people understand that keeping a healthy weight can really help reduce the risk.
- Fruit and vegetables – the reason fruit and veg come out so highly in this analysis is probably that many people in the UK eat fewer than their recommended 5 portions a day. Fruit and veg are an important source of vitamins, minerals and fibre, but don’t rely on supplements to get the nutrients you need – they haven’t been shown to reduce cancer risk and, in some cases, they may be harmful.
- Alcohol – you don’t have to cut out alcohol completely to reduce the risk of cancer – the more you cut down, the more you can reduce the risk. You could try tracking your drinking for a few weeks, to see how much alcohol you really drink – many people underestimate the amount. Use our drinks tracker or download the NHS app on your iPhone or android device.
- Occupation – some people are more at risk of cancer as a result of chemicals or practices used in their occupations. But improved safety in the workplace means fewer people will be at risk now than in the past. If you’re concerned about your work environment, talk to your managers or you could contact the Health and Safety Executive.
- Sunlight and sunbeds – getting too much exposure to UV light, whether from the sun or sunbeds, is the main cause of skin cancers. And rates of malignant melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, are rising fast. Cancer Research UK runs SunSmart, a national skin cancer prevention campaign, to help people know what they can do to reduce the risk of sunburn and skin cancers. At the moment, we’re running ‘R UV UGLY?’, which offers sunbed users the chance to see what’s really going on in their skin. Find out more and take part on our facebook page.
- Infections – in the UK, human papillomavirus, or HPV, is behind the most cancers, followed by Helicobacter pylori, which causes stomach cancer. Girls aged 12-13 are now vaccinated against the two most common cancer-causing types of HPV, which means rates of cervical cancer should decline substantially in the near future
- Red and processed meat – red meat is any fresh, minced or frozen beef, pork, lamb or veal. And processed meat means anything that’s been preserved (apart from by freezing) – so it includes salami, bacon, ham and sausages. Eating small amounts of these meats won’t have a huge effect on cancer risk, but it’s a good idea to limit your intake to only a couple of times a week. Here’s a post from our archives about how red meat might increase the risk of bowel cancer.
- Radiation – we’re all exposed to natural background radiation all the time, from the earth and from space. And occasionally we are exposed to higher doses, such as from X-rays, radiotherapy or travelling by aeroplane.
- Fibre – eating a high-fibre diet can reduce the risk of bowel cancer – it helps speed up food passing through the digestive system, and dilutes waste food, so that cancer-causing chemicals in our food aren’t in contact with the bowel wall for so long.
- Physical activity – being active not only helps you keep a healthy weight, but also reduces cancer risk by itself. But you don’t have to slog it out in the gym for hours a day – just 30 minutes of moderate activity on 5 days a week gives you the benefit. And even small bits of activity throughout the day add up.
- Not breast feeding – breast feeding babies has been shown to reduce the risk of breast cancer – so if you’re able to, and not everyone is, it’s a good idea to try to keep it up for 6 months.
- Salt – high-salt diets can increase the risk of stomach cancer, but other factors like the common bacterial infection Helicobacter pylori and smoking also play an important role.
- Hormone replacement therapy – HRT is an effective treatment for menopausal symptoms, but it can increase the risk of cancer. If you’re considering starting or stopping HRT, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor first.
Jess and Olly
DM Parkin (2011). The fraction of cancer attributable to lifestyle and environmental factors in the UK in 2010 British Journal of Cancer, 105 (Supplement 2)
Eileen Carter December 9, 2011
I have been a long time vegetarian, I have never smoked. I may drink one glass of wine at a celebration. I am skinny.I walk my dogs miles most days.
So why have I had bowel cancer?.
May I say a big thank you to everyone involved in cancer care, I am clear at present.THANK YOU.
Denny Morris December 9, 2011
There is no mention of car fumes which I have read somewhere are the greater cause of lung cancer especially. Are statistics going to be released here. A higher proportion of people in their 40’s and 50’s seem to be dying of cancer recently – surprisingly all the friends I have lost have been non-smokers and healthy living……….
Kerry Taylor December 9, 2011
What about a study into all the chemicals we are exposed to on a daily basis. Through food packaging, plastics, toiletries, cleaning products etc. after following a healthy diet of low meat, 5 fruit & veg a day, breast feeding all 3 of my children up to 1 year, exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy weight, I still have breast cancer. I can only point to carcinogens in our environment as a major contributing factor. More research needs to be done in this area ASAP.
Anne December 9, 2011
I think there is a political angle to this in that governments always think that handing out “lifestyle advice” is a cheap option for the NHS.
(Much cheaper than treating people!) Unfortunately I don’t think it will be the cure-all they hope for. Clearly, genetics, environmental influences and just plain luck account for the majority of cancers. Sheer longevity means that inevitably, more and more people will get cancer, no matter how healthily they live.
Ann Baxter December 9, 2011
I totally agree that these reports make people feel like they have caused their own cancers. I had kidney cancer two years ago. I have never smoked, get lots of exercise, eat healthy and I am certainly not over weight. You have enough negative feelings when being diagnosed so these reports just make things worse. I agree that people should take more care of their health generally but it should have been reported in a different way.
Jim Goldsmith December 9, 2011
Food manufacturing companies are out to make money. OK so what’s wrong with that. Well they do not make money when people are not eating. What do they do. They fill their products with crap such as fat and salt artificial colourings and flavourings. But this **** does not nourish the body. The body still craves more food and people go back to the store to buy more of the crap. The food companies bank account fills up but the customers body doesnt. We become obese and develop illnesses from lack of good dietary ingredients. The companies sell the right sort of food as well but keep its prices sky high so that unless you are prepared to take out a mortgage every time you go shopping you fall into the trap these rogue companies set for you to deprive you of your hard earned money. The governmental agencies should simply prohibit this practice ensuring that the healthy food is drastically reduced in price and that food companies are prohibited from designing their food products to depend on taste alone. Sell by, best buy, use by dates should be banned. They cause massive food waste. By causing people to throw away food which still may be good and go back to the store to spend more money. If obesity causes cancer this is why. We are made to keep eating the ‘tasty foods’ rich in cheap ingredients like salt fat and sugar and MADE to steer clear of those foods that will actually NOURISH us
Ann December 9, 2011
Surely everything in moderation is the key, life is made of memories, a glass of wine and meal with friends, holidays eating ice cream erc..or a few beers before a football match etc..no one should be made to feel guilty for living and enjoying their life, but I don’t think the research is pointing to that for one minute, just educating us to make our own decisions. Cancer is the worst disease ever and to watch someone you love fade away before your eyes is something you can never recover from. I watched my lovely Dad go through this, but he enjoyed every minute of his life, swam a mile every day, but also enjoyed a few pints of beer and Sunday roasts etc..which I intend to do, all in moderation of course.
phil December 9, 2011
I’m a train driver by trade and the orbits coloumn in our monthly journal gives most causes of death unless privacy is requested.My point is an average of 60% of train drivers get cancer and die from it.We’re sat in front of a huge diesel engine with 3 genorators,6 traction motors and all the electronics to make them work.Then a lot of the time we’re below the high voltage overhead lines.After a shift in the cab with the electronic cabinets my skin feels greasy as if it’s trying too protect me from the electro magnetic fields which I do no get in the smaller cab at the other end.
The BT Infinity advert shows how much energy is flowing through our homes etc.Add to this modern lifestyles and ok we’re living longer but poisoning ourselves along the way?
peter killick December 9, 2011
I have always eaten a healthy diet and have always been involved with sport playing football, cricket and squash and long distance running, and until the last two years was walking 8 miles 5 days a week in 2 hours and i got Prostrate cancer so as far as i see it it is not always the life style you live that causes it.
Rosamond Farr December 9, 2011
I found this article very interesting and helpful. I have an issue regarding fruit in ulster. We pay high prices for fruit and very often the fruit is past its best by the time it reaches the supermarket shelves, this must have an impact also on causes of cancer?
Sue December 9, 2011
We all know people who have lived a fit and healthy life who have subsequently died from cancer (my 46 year old husband) and the reverse. This evidence is not putting blame on anyone it is just allowing people to consider which risks they are willing / not wiling to take. We make such decisions everyday of our life. I will get in my car to go to work even though it increases my chance of being killed in a car crash but I will wear my seat belt and travel at an appropriate speed to increase the chance of me surviving a car crash etc.
Pam December 9, 2011
I find that the scientific evidence just leaves me with more questions than answers. It is very easy to say that ‘lifestyle influences cancer’ but as a non smoking vegetarian who has had a very healthy exercise regime for a very long time I am doubtful of the conclusions and would ask who is paying you. I have always supported cancer research but I am loosing faith in the research because it is way too generalised and is generated in a way that I find totally suspect and very judgemental.
john pickering December 8, 2011
i had a kidney removed nearlly 4 years ago i was told on jan 13 this year that it had spread to my lymph nodes liver sturnam pelvis right kidney spine i now have a sub carinal mass that will not respond to treatment my days on this planet are numbered live at this moment in time for me is crap the chemo tablets they have put me on are destroying my quality of life and i’ve had enough
Alan December 8, 2011
My wife and Iboth lost our previous partners through cancer in spite of all four of us having had healthy lifestyles with no smoking, plenty of exercise and only social drinking.
I am covinced that long term a major cause of cancers will be found to be the carcinogens to which we are all subjected in our every day lives irrespective of our wanting to be or not. Having said that I fully agree that a healthy lfestyle and balanced diet with good food reduces the risk of the disease.
Pan Pantziarka December 8, 2011
The reporting of this study is definitely tinged with a moralistic streak that says 40% of cancer patients have only got themselves to blame. That’s simply not what this study says.
For a discussion on this take a look at: http://www.anticancer.org.uk/2011/12/cancer-and-lifestyle-choices.html
People need to remember that this study is a mathematical projection, it’s not based on real patients and what’s happened to them.
Lisajane Gooden December 8, 2011
Although some people can affect their chances of developing cancer; This latest barrage in the press is somewhat upsetting. Do cancer patients not feel guilty enough? I have a BRAC1 gene and having had breast cancer twice, I spent many years pre genetic counselling wondering what I did or could have done to avoid my cancer. The answer was nothing; I breast fed 3 children, have never smoked, have a healthy BMI, don’t drink and I’m a vegetarian. The answers are just not that straightforward.
Kevan Gelling December 8, 2011
Here’s my beef:
So fruit/veg reduce head and neck cancers by 4%, red meat reduces bowel cancer by 8% but vitamin D reduces bowel cancer by a massive 40%.
The evidence for vitamin D is as good as if not better then many of the lifestyle factors listed above, so why is it missing.
And vitamin D protects against infections and melonoma and is affected by linked to obesity, alcohol and smoking. After smoking it may the single biggest factor in increased cancer risk.
Anne December 8, 2011
I agree with many sufferers here. I’ve been donating to Cancer Research UK for many years, but also now feel I’m just being blamed for my condition. I lead a healthy lifestyle, and breast fed both my babies. I have an older sister who never had babies, drinks heavily and has been obese since adolecence. Guess which one of us has breast cancer?
There’s much made here of weight being “responsible” (how do they know?) for 7% of cancers. Not enough emphasis on the fact that this means it has nothing to do with the other 93%!
I also wonder why my oncologist wants me to take Tamoxifen, a drug which is notorious for making patients put on lots of weight. If weight is such a risk factor, why give women with breast cancer something which makes them fat??
Diane December 7, 2011
Having been diagnosed with breast cancer in June and undergone two surgeries and now having chemotherapy I feel I have gone through enough,with more still to come, without now being blamed for having caused my own cancer. I feel ashamed, like I have heaped sorrow onto my family and friends and it is all my fault.
Kevan Gelling December 7, 2011
Fruit & veg – “limited evidence” and “inadequate evidence” from your BJC research – http://www.nature.com/bjc/journal/v105/n2s/full/bjc2011477a.html. How is it 3rd in the list ?
Also in the UK, sausages are not ‘processed’
John anthony courbus December 7, 2011
i am doing a science case study and have learnt about how the lungs work and how it can cause cancer and this website has most definatley raised my awairness of cancer and the implecations of smoking.
Elliot December 7, 2011
That is a disgraceful attempt at down playing carcinogens in our day to day life. We’re being openly poisoned and if our immune system is suffering for whatever reason whether it’s lack of Iodine or Vitamins then Cancer has a chance of breaking through.
It’s not just about eating right. Learn what’s in your shower gel, toothpaste, how wireless internet and cell phones effect the body, the chemicals being sprayed in the air.
Modern medicine will say none of the above can cause cancer. They refuse to acknowledge if a person is exposed to all of the above on a daily basis it’s going to have an effect.
Henry Scowcroft December 7, 2011
Thanks everyone for your comments, and our thoughts are with each and every one of you affected by cancer.
There are still many individual cases of cancer that we can’t explain and for which there doesn’t seem to be any obvious lifestyle factor. So we want you to know that when we talk about changing lifestyle we are aiming to try and prevent cancer cases in the future, by making sure everyone knows what they can do to stack the odds in their favour.
As we say in the blog post, this work and the publicity around it is categorically not about blame. Instead, it’s about helping individuals and policy makers understand the science behind reducing your risk of developing cancer. We know that healthy living is no guarantee against developing cancer, and there are still unknown reasons for why cancer develops. But we hope that some people will feel that having this knowledge will encourage them to make at least some simple, positive lifestyle changes that can help to reduce their cancer risk .
The last thing we want to do is make people feel that getting cancer is their fault in some way, and we know that many cancers can’t be explained by lifestyle factors. But because research has shown that changing lifestyle can reduce the chances of people getting cancer we have a duty to let the public know this. Only in this way will fewer people have to go through the same things that many of you have.
To address specific points, raised above:
Elliot – you might find these pages on our main website of interest: http://info.cancerresearchuk.org/healthyliving/cancercontroversies/
Kevan – re. meat, you may find this of interest: http://news.cancerresearchuk.org/2007/11/12/how-does-red-meat-increase-bowel-cancer-risk/ re. fruit and vegetables, the current evidence suggests they’re less important than were thought a decade ago, but they’re still a factor, particularly for mouth and throat cancer, and possibly for lung cancer. And since not many people in the UK achieve 5 a day, even if the risk is smaller, it’ll affect more cases. Have a read: http://news.cancerresearchuk.org/2010/12/01/fruit-and-vegetables-are-good-for-general-health-but-have-little-effect-on-cancer/
Cancer Research UK
judith December 7, 2011
i agree with anne-marie and ellie. how can the research possibly show what ’causes’ cancer? none of the press reports explain that. i have breast cancer, have always had a healthy lifestyle, but say i was obese how would you know that the cancer was caused by my obesity rather than just coexisting. i have friends who are really overweight and drink and smoke etc who do not have cancer, i’m the yoga/cycling/vegetarian/meditating one who does. i understand using this research to try to change behaviour but without context it just ends up blaming those who are already struggling.
Kevan Gelling December 7, 2011
I though recent research had concluded that fruit and veg intake do little to prevent cancer and that it’s processed red meat not fresh red meat – so bacon, ham but not fresh sausages – which increases bowel cancer risk