We know that many cancers could be prevented by lifestyle changes. Up to 40% of cancers in the UK could be prevented by lifestyle changes.
For example, it’s estimated that 57% of bowel cancers in men and 52% in women could be prevented by changes in lifestyle.
Making these changes doesn’t guarantee that you won’t get cancer, but they will make it less likely and will improve your health generally.
If you smoke, giving up is the healthiest decision you can make.
Smoking is the single biggest avoidable cause of cancer. In the UK about 1 in 5 cancers (19%) and more than 1 in 4 cancer deaths (about 29%) are caused by smoking. It increases the risk of many cancers including cancers of the mouth, throat, lung, bladder, kidney, pancreas, bowel, stomach and cervix.
Breathing other people’s smoke (passive smoking) also increases your risk of developing cancer.
Help is available if you want to give up smoking. Ask your GP for advice, or contact your national stop smoking service.
Tel 0800 022 4332
(Mon-Fri, 9am-8pm, Sat-Sun, 11am-4pm)
Tel 0800 84 84 84
Stop Smoking Wales (Wales)
Tel 0800 085 2219
Smokers’ Helpline (Northern Ireland)
Tel 0808 812 8008
Keep to a healthy weight
The latest figures for the UK estimate that more than half of women (50%) and about 2/3 (66%) of men are overweight.
Being overweight increases the risk of several cancers including cancers of the pancreas, bowel, womb (uterus), and kidney as well as breast cancer after the menopause.
If you’re overweight getting back to a healthy weight will help reduce your risk of cancer.
Your GP can advise you on the ideal weight for your height. The best way to lose weight is through a combination of eating a balanced diet and being more physically active.
Eat a healthy diet
A healthy diet can reduce cancer risk, particularly the risk of developing bowel cancer.
To reduce your cancer risk, eat plenty of fibre and at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.
Limit your intake of red meat and avoid processed meat. Processed meats are meats that have had preservatives added or that have been preserved by salting, curing or smoking. They include sausages, ham and burgers.
Limit how much alcohol you drink
Drinking alcohol, especially drinking more than the recommended limits, increases cancer risk. About 4 in 100 cancers in the UK (4%) are linked to alcohol.
Alcohol especially increases the risk of cancers of the mouth, throat and gullet (oesophagus). It is also linked to cancers of the bowel, liver and breast. In general the more you drink the more your risk increases.
The European Code Against Cancer recommends that, to reduce cancer risk, men should drink no more than two units of alcohol a day and women no more than one unit a day.
A unit is half a pint of ordinary strength beer, lager or cider, one small glass (125ml) of wine or a single measure (25ml) of spirits.
Keep physically active
Many studies have found that regular physical activity can reduce the risk of cancer. Lack of physical activity increases the risk of bowel cancer, womb cancer and post-menopausal breast cancer. It may also increase the risk of other cancers, such as lung cancer and prostate cancer.
Being physically active doesn’t necessarily mean going to the gym - regular walking, cycling or swimming can be enough.
Try to do at least 2½ hours of moderate intensity physical activity a week. This could be made up of 30 minutes of activity each day for five days. You could even break it up further into 10 minutes of activity, three times a day.
During moderate-intensity activity, you’re still able to talk, but your breathing is quicker and deeper. Your body is warming up, your face may have a healthy glow and your heart is beating faster than normal but not racing.
If you’re not used to exercise, your GP can advise you on getting started.
Take care in the sun
Spending some time outdoors in the sun helps you stay healthy, but it’s also important to protect your skin from burning as this can increase your risk of skin cancers.
Our bodies use the UVB rays in sunlight to make vitamin D, which is important for bone health and reduces the risk of many illnesses, including cancer.
Most people can get enough exposure to UVB rays by going outside regularly, without sunscreen on, for a few minutes during the middle of the day. The amount of sun exposure you need depends on your hair and skin type. But it’s important not to stay out long enough to let your skin redden or burn.
If you are going to be out in the sun for longer than a few minutes, use a sun cream that protects against both UVA and UVB rays, with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15.
You should wear loose, cotton clothes that cover your body, as well as a hat. Take extra care with children. Avoid using a sun bed or sunlamp. If it’s important for you to look tanned, use fake tanning lotions or sprays.
Have safe sex
Viruses play a role in the development of some types of cancer. Generally, these viruses are sexually transmitted, but some of them can also be transmitted through blood (for example, if drug users share a needle).
Human papilloma virus (HPV) plays a role in many cases of cervical cancer, and it also increases the risk of developing head and neck cancer, anal cancer and cancers of the vulva or penis.
Hepatitis B and C can increase the risk of liver cancer, and the HIV (Aids) virus can increase the risk of developing lymphoma and sarcoma, although this is rare.
Practising safer sex by using condoms or other barrier methods of contraception and not sharing needles can help protect you from contracting these viruses.
Know your body
If you know your body and what is normal for you, it will help you to be aware of any changes.
Sometimes people, particularly as they get older, think a change in their body isn’t worth bothering their doctor about. But, if you notice a change in how you feel or how your body works and you’re not sure why it’s happened it’s better to be safe and get it checked out.
The European Code Against Cancer recommends that you should go to see your doctor if you have:
- a lump anywhere on your body
- a sore or ulcer that doesn’t heal within a few weeks
- a mole that changes shape, size or colour or bleeds
- a cough or hoarseness that lasts for more than three weeks
- shortness of breath
- loss of appetite, ongoing indigestion or difficulty swallowing
- a change in bowel habit that lasts for more than two weeks
- blood in urine, bowel motions, spit or vomit or abnormal bleeding from your vagina
- unexplained weight loss or tiredness
- unexplained ache or pain that last for more than four weeks
Most of the time these changes aren’t due to cancer but, if you do develop cancer, finding it early can make a big difference, so get them checked out.
It’s important to see your GP if you have an unexplained or ongoing change in your body.