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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.

In the UK, more than one in three people will develop cancer at some point in their lives. Every year, around 309,500 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:

Some people are more at risk of cancer as a result of chemicals or practices used in their occupation. Improved safety in the workplace means fewer people will be at risk now than in the past.

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, like 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. 

How many cancers?

This diagram shows the results of new research funded by Cancer Research UK, which aims to show the number of cancer cases in the UK that could be prevented by known lifestyle and environmental factors.Attributable risk UK 2010 HL

The thin lines show the total number of cancers of
each type from the latest UK incidence figures, and
the large bars in the centre of each line show the
proportion of these cases that could be prevented in
men and women. Around the outside, you’ll see the
lifestyle and environmental factors that are linked to each cancer type. On the left is the contribution of each lifestyle factor to cancer overall.

You can read more about the results, or examine the chart in more detail on our CancerStats site.

Is prevention a guarantee?

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

‘Healthy living’ is not a cast-iron guarantee against cancer. Instead, it "reduces the risk" of the disease - it heavily stacks the odds of avoiding it in our favour.

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 if we look at the UK as a whole, we can clearly see that non-smokers are far less likely to develop 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.

Can lifestyle changes really make a difference?

Yes, and not just for cancer. In 2008, a large 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 cancer or heart disease.

And another study suggests a third of cancers are linked to smoking, alcohol, diet or being overweight.

Isn’t it better to search for a cure?

For many people, cancer research is all about the hunt for ‘a cure’. More people are surviving cancer than ever before and better treatments will undoubtedly save more lives in the future.

But they are one part of the bigger picture. Investigating the causes of different types of cancer could play an equally important role in stopping them from developing in the first place.

Prevention plays an important part in the fight against cancer because:

  • We will never discover a single cure for cancer because it is actually a group of over 200 diseases, most of which will need many different treatments.
  • Many types of cancer that are difficult to detect early and treat effectively can be largely prevented. These include lung cancer and oesophageal cancer.
  • Many common cancers are mostly preventable including lung, bowel and mouth cancers, and malignant melanoma.
  • Even though survival rates for many cancers are high, living with cancer and going through treatment can be a difficult experience.
  • Cancer is mostly a disease of later life, and more people in the UK are living to an older age. This means that the number of cancer cases will rise unless more can be prevented.

How does cancer prevention work?

While a small proportion of cancers are caused by inherited genes, the vast majority are triggered by DNA damage that accumulates during a person’s lifetime. DNA is a molecular instruction manual that tells our cells what to do.

Damaged DNA can make cells grow and divide uncontrollably - the hallmark of all cancers.

In many cases, healthy living reduces the risk of cancer by reducing our exposure to things that damage DNA. These include:

Making healthy choices, such as keeping a healthy body weight, can also reduce the levels of molecules that make our cells divide faster than normal, such as the hormone oestrogen.

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Question about cancer? Contact our information nurse team
Updated: 5 October 2012