Lifestyle factors and reducing your risk

You cannot reduce your risk of cancer completely. But there are some ways you can lower your risk and improve your general health. These include:

  • giving up smoking, chewing or sucking tobacco
  • keeping to a healthy weight and eating a healthy diet
  • being physically active regularly
  • limiting how much alcohol you drink
  • protecting your skin and eyes from sun damage
  • seeing your GP if you have symptoms that are ongoing, unexplained or unusual for you
  • taking part in breast, bowel or cervical screening if you are invited to.

Your GP can give you information about a healthy lifestyle and support that may be available for you.

Most people worry about their health at some point in their lives. But if you cannot stop worrying about your health, your GP may be able to help or give you information about counselling services. Our cancer support specialists are also here to talk on 0808 808 00 00 (seven days a week, 8am to 8pm).

Lifestyle risk factors

Around 1 in 3 cases of the most common cancers (about 33%) could be prevented by eating a healthy diet, keeping to a healthy weight and being more active.

You cannot reduce your risk of cancer completely. But there are some ways you can lower your risk and improve your general health.


Give up smoking

If you smoke, giving up is the single most important thing you can do for your health. In the UK, more than 1 in 4 cancer deaths (over 25%) are caused by smoking. Smoking increases the risk of the following cancers:

Chewing or sucking tobacco is not a safe alternative to smoking cigarettes. If you chew or suck tobacco, you have a higher risk of developing mouth and oral cancers.

Breathing in other people’s smoke (passive smoking) also increases your risk of developing cancer. Keep your home smoke-free to protect your and your family’s health.

The long-term effects of e-cigarettes are not yet fully known. They are thought to be around 95% safer than smoking tobacco cigarettes.

If you want to give up smoking, it is never too late to stop. Ask your GP for advice, or contact the stop-smoking service in your area:

Smokefree (England)

0300 123 1044 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 8pm, Saturday and Sunday, 11am to 4pm).

nhs.uk/smokefree

Smokeline (Scotland)

0800 84 84 84 (Monday to Friday, 8am to 10pm, Saturday and Sunday, 9am to 5pm).

canstopsmoking.com

Stop Smoking Wales

0800 085 2219 (Monday to Thursday, 8am to 8pm, Friday, 8am to 5pm, Saturday, 9am to 4pm).

helpmequit.wales

Want2stop (Northern Ireland)

want2stop.info


Keep to a healthy weight

Being overweight increases the risk of many types of cancer, including cancers of the bowel, kidney, womb and gullet (oesophagus). Women who are overweight and have been through the menopause also have a higher risk of breast cancer.

Keeping to a healthy body weight reduces your risk of cancer and other health problems, such as heart disease and diabetes.

Here are some tips to help you keep to a healthy weight:

  • Eat a healthy diet with lots of fruit and vegetables, and less fat and less sugar.
  • Only eat as much food as you need according to how active you are.
  • Be more physically active.

If you are worried about your weight or need more information, talk to your GP or a dietitian.


Eat a healthy diet

There is no single food that causes or prevents cancer. Eating a balanced diet is good for your overall health and helps reduce your risk of some cancers. It can also help you keep to a healthy weight.

For most people, a daily balanced diet includes:

  • lots of fruit and vegetables
  • starchy foods (carbohydrates), such as bread, rice, pasta, noodles, couscous and potatoes
  • some protein-rich foods, such as meat, poultry, fish, nuts, eggs and pulses (beans and lentils)
  • some milk and dairy foods, such as cheese, yoghurt and cream
  • a small amount of food high in fat, salt and sugar.

Drinks should mainly be water, tea and coffee (without sugar), or sugar-free drinks.

Eating plenty of high-fibre foods helps reduce the risk of bowel cancer. High-fibre foods include:

  • wholegrain bread
  • brown rice
  • oats
  • beans
  • peas
  • lentils
  • grains
  • seeds
  • fruit and vegetables.

Potatoes with their skins on are also a good source of fibre.

Try to limit how much red and processed meat you eat. These are linked to a higher risk of bowel and prostate cancer. Red meat is beef, pork, lamb and veal. Processed meats include sausages, bacon, salami, tinned meats, and packet meats like sandwich ham.

You can find more detailed information about diet and cancer risk on the World Cancer Research Fund website (wcrf-uk.org).

I eat lots of fruit and vegetables. I try to have five a day, and starchy foods like wholegrain bread.

Robin

How diet can help reduce your risk of cancer

Macmillan Specialist Dietician Helen Kennedy explains how a healthy diet can reduce your risk of cancer and help if you're having treatment.

About our cancer information videos

How diet can help reduce your risk of cancer

Macmillan Specialist Dietician Helen Kennedy explains how a healthy diet can reduce your risk of cancer and help if you're having treatment.

About our cancer information videos


Be physically active

Many studies have found that regular physical activity can reduce the risk of cancer. You should try to do at least 30 minutes of activity every day. Your cancer risk is reduced further if you are active for more than 30 minutes a day and if you exercise harder (vigorous activity).

You do not have to go to the gym to be active. Some people enjoy regular walking, cycling or swimming instead. During your regular activity, you should feel you are breathing faster but are still able to talk. Your pulse should be slightly faster than normal. You can increase the amount of activity you do as you get used to exercising.

If you are not used to doing exercise, ask your GP for advice about getting started. You can find more information about keeping active on these websites:


Limit how much alcohol you drink

Drinking alcohol increases your risk of mouth and throat cancers. It is also linked to the following cancers:

In general, the more you drink, the higher your risk. Your risk is even higher if you also smoke.

The current guidelines say that if you drink alcohol:

  • do not regularly drink more than 14 units of alcohol in a week
  • spread the amount you drink in a week over three or more days
  • try to have several alcohol-free days every week.

Remember, the number of units you are drinking depends on the size and strength of your drink:

  • Half a pint of lower-strength (3 to 4%) beer, lager or cider contains 1 unit.
  • Half a pint of higher-strength (5%) beer, lager or cider contains 1½ units.
  • A standard glass of wine (175ml), often called a small glass in pubs and bars, contains around 2 units.
  • A large glass of wine (250ml) contains 3 units.
  • A single measure (25ml) of 40% spirits contains 1 unit.

You can find more information about alcohol and drinking guidelines at drinkaware.co.uk.


Take care in the sun

Spending some time outside in the sun helps you stay healthy. Our bodies need sunlight to make vitamin D. This is important for bone health and reduces the risk of many illnesses, including cancer. But it is important to protect your skin from burning, as this can increase your risk of skin cancers.

If you are going to be out in the sun for longer than a few minutes, you should protect your skin. Here are some tips to help you stay safe in the sun:

  • Wear clothes that cover your body, arms and legs.
  • Wear a hat that protects your head, face and neck.
  • Wear sunglasses with wide wrap-around lenses or wide arms with the CE Mark (this shows they meet the relevant European Standard).
  • Stay in the shade when you can.
  • Use a sun cream with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30.

Using sun beds or sun lamps also increases your risk of skin cancer. If you want to look tanned, use fake-tanning lotions or sprays.


Protect yourself from viruses

Viral infections are very common and usually do not cause cancer to develop. A small number of viruses have been linked to a higher risk of certain types of cancer. These include:

Using condoms and dental dams during sex can help protect you from some viruses.

If you inject drugs, it is important to never share needles. This is because viruses can pass from person to person in the blood.

Vaccines can be used to protect against HPV infection. The NHS offers the HPV vaccine to:

  • girls from the age of 12 or 13
  • men who have sex with men.

From 2019, the HPV vaccine will also be offered to boys from the age of 12 or 13.

Other people may also have the HPV vaccine, because they may have an increased risk of cancer caused by HPV infection. Your GP, local sexual health clinic or HIV clinic can give you more information.


Know your body

If you know your body and what is normal for you, it will help you be aware of any changes.

People sometimes feel embarrassed talking about a change in their body or think it is not worth bothering their GP about. But if you notice a change in how you feel or how your body works, it is better to get it checked. Always see your GP if you have symptoms that are ongoing, unexplained or unusual for you:

  • Unexplained bleeding – this can include blood in your pee (urine), poo (stools), spit or vomit. For women, it also includes vaginal bleeding in between periods, after sex or after the menopause.
  • Losing weight without trying to.
  • An unexplained lump or swelling anywhere on your body.
  • A new, unexplained pain anywhere in your body that lasts for 3 weeks or more.
  • Feeling more tired (fatigued) than usual for some time, with no obvious reason.
  • A sore or mouth ulcer that has not healed after 3 weeks.
  • A new mole, a change in an existing mole, or a change in your skin.
  • A cough or hoarse voice that lasts for more than 3 weeks.
  • Breathlessness for no reason.
  • Looser poo or diarrhoea that lasts for 3 weeks or more.
  • Problems peeing, such as pain or needing to go suddenly.
  • Difficulty swallowing or chewing, or a feeling that something is stuck in your throat.
  • A lot of heartburn or indigestion, or if it is very painful.
  • Having a swollen tummy (feeling bloated) most of the time.
  • Heavy sweating at night that makes your clothes or sheets damp.

Having any of these symptoms does not usually mean you have cancer, but it is sensible to speak to your GP. If you have already been to see your GP but the symptoms have not gone away, it is important to see them again.

We have more information about the signs and symptoms of cancer.

If you’re worried about any ache or pain, see your GP. It may be nothing to worry about, but it’s always good to get it checked rather than worry.

Christine


Take part in cancer screening

Screening uses tests to:

  • find cancer early, when treatment is most effective
  • find changes that may develop into cancer, so these can be treated to prevent cancer.

In the UK, there are screening programmes for cancers of the bowel, breast and cervix. Taking part in these programmes reduces your risk of these cancers. If you are registered with a GP, you will be invited to take part and have screening tests when needed.

There is more information about screening on these websites:


If you are worried about cancer

Most people worry about their health at some point in their lives. For some, thinking about their risk of a health condition such as cancer helps them make positivre lifestyle changes.

Sometimes, health worries are more complicated. If you have more questions, or you cannot stop worrying about your health, it can help to talk to someone:

  • Your GP may be able to help or give you information about counselling services in your area.
  • Our cancer support specialists are here to talk on 0808 808 00 00 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 8pm).

Back to Potential causes of cancer

Low immunity

People with low immunity are at a higher risk of developing some types of cancer.

Viruses and bacteria

You cannot catch cancer from someone else. But some viruses may increase your risk of developing cancer.

Human papilloma virus (HPV)

Human papilloma virus (or HPV) is a common infection. Some types of HPV can increase the risk of developing cancer.

HPV vaccines

There are two vaccines currently available across the UK to prevent human papilloma virus (HPV).