We can reduce the risk of some cancers – but can our lifestyle choices make us better prepared?

Published: 07 November 2023

Can our lifestyle choices now make us better prepared to deal with cancer in the future, asks Senior Innovation Manager Rosalia Delfino? 

Photo of Rosalia, Senior Innovation Manager. She is looking directly at the camera and smiling.

Rosalia Delfino Senior Innovation Manager

What’s the problem we’re trying to fix? 

As part of our mission to transform the future of cancer I led a group of Macmillan experts to look at some of the big questions about how people can potentially reduce the risk of cancer and get diagnosed earlier – and what Macmillan’s role could be. 

We have an ever-growing ageing population and are seeing more people living longer with multiple conditions. The NHS is under increasing pressure and without action to improve people’s health, the health system could be overwhelmed even further, and health equity may spiral out of control.  

People need to be empowered to understand the impact that their lifestyle choices have on their health as a result. This isn’t just about genetics. How you live your life can be just as important. News reports have highlighted that female healthy life expectancy at birth in the most deprived areas of England was 19.3 years less than in the least deprived areas in 2018 to 2020.

Other research shows keeping a healthy weight can reduce the risk of 13 different types of cancer. Whilst lifestyle factors aren’t always a choice, we know that focusing on your overall health can help improve your cancer outcomes.  

Prehabilitation for life – not just before cancer treatment  

It’s important to acknowledge that there are people who readily engage in behaviour change and many others who won't. Just telling someone that exercise might improve their health is not enough. Quick advice and a leaflet from a healthcare professional can inspire a person to be more active in the short term. But referring people to exercise specialists can result in more long-term changes to how they stay physically active.

There is already a lot of strong evidence to suggest that improving a person’s health before their cancer treatment (“prehabilitation”) can benefit them in a number of ways, including reducing hospital stays and treatment complications, improving recovery and quality of life and increasing self-confidence. This can happen by being more physically active, getting support with diet and wellbeing, and reducing smoking or alcohol intake.

If health and community organisations can reach people in a meaningful and tailored way at key moments throughout someone’s whole life it could make a difference. This could be at primary school while they’re learning about health for the first time, when someone in their family receives a cancer diagnosis, or when they go through diagnostic tests for a potential cancer scare. If we can meet people where they are, via people they trust, with information that feels relevant and accessible, then we’re on the right path.   

Of course, Macmillan cannot take on this challenge alone. This requires input from across the whole system. If we were to invest in this area it would require Macmillan partnering in new and innovative ways with national government, local authorities, Integrated Care Systems, NHS Trusts, other health charities, community groups, the wider charity sector, and many others. It also requires deeply understanding communities and their specific needs at a really local level.  

What this could look like in practice 

Macmillan are experts at delivering information and support. We have long track record of collaborating and have hundreds of colleagues already working with communities across the UK. We have incredible services that we provide directly to people with cancer, such as the Macmillan Support Line. The building blocks are all there. We’re really well placed to make the most of our existing skills, resources and assets to think about how we could make an even bigger difference in this space. 

We’re looking at where the evidence suggests Macmillan could make the biggest impact. Some of the questions we’re asking ourselves include: 

  • Are there any gaps in the expertise we offer via our Support Line? For example, should we also support people to speak to dieticians, personal trainers, or genetic counsellors? 
  • Are we directing our funding to the right mix of health and social care professionals? Is there a role for us to support more community-based professionals such as qualified health coaches? 
  • Are we partnering with the right experts? Could we partner with a housing charity to add our weight to a campaign about the importance of safe and stable housing for people’s mental and physical health? 
  • Are we allocating our Macmillan grants in the most effective way? Should we give grants to people with an increased genetic risk of cancer to access physical and emotional support (e.g. gym membership or genetic counselling)? 

There is an opportunity here for us and there are so many different ways to begin to explore this space and start to understand our potential for impact.  

What's next?

In early 2024, we’ll think in more detail about how we will deliver the change we want to see for people living with cancer, including reducing the risk of cancer and early cancer diagnosis.  

Visit Transforming Macmillan Together for the latest updates.