We recently released new data highlighting what a real difference collective action on public health could make.

Lifestyle factors like smoking, too much unhealthy food, being overweight, alcohol, UV exposure and a lack of regular exercise have caused nearly 600,000 extra cases of cancer in the UK in the past five years.

The good news is that – if you’re trying to reduce your risk – there are lots of small changes you can make to your lifestyle that can add up and make a big difference. While these healthy living choices aren’t necessarily going to grab the headlines, we do know they can work.

Read on to find out how each of the lifestyle factors stack up, how you can make a difference, and what we’re doing to help prevent cancer.

Where do the numbers come from?

But first, a bit about the numbers. To work out how many cancers are linked to lifestyle, we used recent cancer statistics to update research we funded in 2011, from Professor Max Parkin.

We blogged about the research when it was first published but to recap, the conclusions were drawn from the best available evidence on the links between lifestyle and cancer.

Professor Parkin and his team then used some complex maths to work out the proportion of annual UK cancer cases linked to each lifestyle factor – called a ‘population attributable fraction’.

There’s more in-depth info about these figures in the statistics section of our website. We’ve also updated and refined our infographic showing how important each of these factors is relative to each other – click on the images below to explore the data.

Preventable cancers poster

Click this link and share our infographic. Credit: Cancer Research UK

So, what can you do?

You probably know some of this, but it’s always worth repeating.

Stopping smoking is the big one – making up more than half of the preventable cases of cancer. Giving up isn’t always easy, but it’s the change that will make the most difference to your health. And there’s plenty of free support available from your doctor or the local stop smoking services – it’s proven to be the best help to quit.

But there are other choices we can make each day to lower the risk of cancer. Keeping a healthy weight, eating a good balanced diet, cutting down on alcohol, keeping active and staying safe in the sun can make a big difference.

And these things add up. We’ve known since 2008 that by changing four of these lifestyle factors, you could gain 14 years of life (Here’s our previous blog post again for more details).

Of course, healthy living isn’t a guarantee against cancer, but it can help stack the odds in your favour. If you do want to make a change you can find more information and tips on our healthy living pages.

(We have to stress, we’re not blaming anyone with the disease – for more explanation, read this blog post).

And it’s not just cancer

It’s also important to point out that, as well as dramatically affecting the risk of cancer, most of these lifestyle factors are related to an increased risk of other health problems too.

For example it’s difficult to exaggerate the impact smoking has on your body. It’s not just the 14 different types of cancer, smoking is a leading cause of heart disease, it damages the lungs and causes chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and a range of other health problems like diabetes, arthritis, erectile dysfunction, blindness…the list goes on.

Similarly, keeping active and a healthy weight and cutting down the booze also have substantial benefits for your health over and above reducing your risk of cancer.

What are we doing about it?

Watch our director of cancer prevention, Alison Cox, talking about new cancer prevention research on YouTube

Watch our director of cancer prevention, Alison Cox, talking about new cancer prevention research on YouTube

600,000 is a staggering number of avoidable cases of cancer in five years. So, you might ask, what can be done to lower this number?

Firstly, we’re spreading the news – here on the blog, via the media, on our website and social media channels, and through our Cancer Awareness Roadshow (coming soon to a city/town near you). We hope you’ll be inspired to start thinking about changes you can make to your lifestyle.

Secondly, as our name suggests, through research. We already fund some of the world’s biggest trials looking at how we can prevent cancer. For example, we help fund the EPIC study looking into the relationship between diet and cancer. And we’ve recently launched a new £6 million Cancer Prevention Initiative to fund more research into how we can prevent cancer, encourage behaviour change and translate evidence into policy.

And, finally, through our policy work and our campaigns, we will continue to persuade the Government to tackle the huge health burden associated with smoking and other lifestyle issues.

You can read more about what we’re doing here.

Nikki Smith is a senior health information officer at Cancer Research UK