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Can cancer be prevented?

Half of all cancers can be preventedMany people believe that getting cancer is purely down to genes, fate or bad luck. But through scientific research, we know that our risk actually depends on a combination of our genes, our environment and aspects of our lives, many of which we can control.

Cancer is caused by damage to our DNA, the chemical instructions that tell our cells what to do. Things in our environment, such as UV rays, or our lifestyle, such as the cancer causing chemicals in tobacco, can damage our DNA. This damage builds up over time. If a cell develops too much damage to its DNA it can start to multiply out of control - this is how cancer starts. You can find out more in our What is cancer? section.

Some people inherit damaged DNA from their parents, which can give them a higher risk of certain cancers. For example the BRCA genes are linked with breast, ovarian, prostate and other cancers. But the proportion of cancers caused by inherited faulty genes is small. You can read more about inherited genes and cancer on our CancerHelp pages.

In the UK, more than one in three people will develop cancer at some point in their lives. Every year, around 325,000 people are diagnosed with the disease. But experts estimate that more than four in 10 cancer cases could be prevented by lifestyle changes, such as:

Surveys of the population have shown that people aren't necessarily aware that all of those things are linked to cancer. For example, the CRUK funded Perceptions of Risk Survey in 2008 found that only 3 per cent of the people polled knew that being overweight or obese could increase their risk of cancer.

Thinking of making a change? Jeff, Mark, Maria and Emilie have. See their stories and be inspired.

Find Jeff, Maria, Emilie and Mark's full stories on our smoking, alcohol and obesity pages. 

Making lifestyle changes can be difficult, but there are so many benefits. Try to find tricks that make it easier to get into healthy habits, such as being active with a friend, keeping track of what you eat or drink, or letting your friends and family know about what you're doing. 

Is prevention a guarantee?

Preventing cancer doesn’t work in the same way as preventing infectious diseases with vaccines.

‘Healthy living’ is not a cast-iron guarantee against cancer. But it stacks the odds in our favour, by reducing the risk of developing the disease.

For example, we know that it’s possible for a heavy smoker to live a cancer-free life, while someone who never touches cigarettes could develop lung cancer. But lots of large, long-term studies clearly show that people who have never smoked are far less likely to develop or die from cancer than smokers.

In the same way, careful drivers cannot guarantee that they will never get into an accident due to events beyond their control, but they are much less likely to do so than reckless ones.

You can read more about understanding risk on our Science Blog.

Can lifestyle changes really make a difference?

Yes, and not just for cancer. In 2008, a large UK study worked out how a combination of four healthy behaviours would affect your health. These were: not smoking; keeping active; moderating how much alcohol you drink; and eating five daily portions of fruit and vegetables.

People who ticked all four healthy boxes gained an average of 14 years of life compared to people who did not do any of them. By the end of the study, they were less likely to have died from any cause.

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Question about cancer? Contact our information nurse team
Updated: 16 April 2014