BLOG Preventing cancer through lifestyle changes

World Cancer Day, held every 4 February, has been recognised by the Union for International Cancer Control to raise awareness of cancer globally, with the aim of encouraging prevention, early detection and treatment for cancer.

What is cancer?

Cancer is a disease in which cells divide uncontrollably and can lead to the development of a lump or tumour. If left untreated the cancerous cells can spread to other parts of the body.

The body does not detect cancerous cells as foreign and so there is no natural defence to fight cancerous cells from the immune system. Cancer can start almost anywhere in the body and there are more than 200 different types of cancer.

It is estimated that 1 in 2 people will get cancer in their lifetime.

Thankfully as more research is conducted, medicine evolves, and public awareness and early detection of cancer have resulted in more people surviving cancer than ever before. In the UK, we have better access to early cancer screening services, more cancer awareness campaigns, as well as more treatment options, so approximately 50% of people now survive their cancer for 10 years or more.

The best way to fight against cancer is through prevention and early detection so that treatment can be more effective before cancer spreads to other parts of the body. Cancer can be detected early by attending screening appointments when invited and also by being aware of what our bodies look and feel like through self-examination.

How can cancer be prevented?

We now know that 40% of cancer cases could be prevented through lifestyle changes. Cancer-related deaths that could be prevented are caused by tobacco use, high body mass index (BMI), alcohol use, low fruit and vegetable intake, and a lack of physical activity.  

Tobacco use

Approximately 22% of cancers are caused by smoking or chewing tobacco, making it the largest cause of cancer in the UK. Kicking the habit can be challenging, but there are many resources available for free via the NHS, your local pharmacy or even mobile apps which can help you to take your first steps towards being tobacco-free. From just three months of being smoke-free your lung function increases by 10%.


Obesity is the second largest cause of cancer in the UK and results in approximately 6% of all cancers. Being overweight can cause 13 different types of cancer including breast, bowel and pancreatic cancers. Being more physically active and eating a balanced diet can help maintain a healthy body weight.

Physical inactivity

As a population, we are becoming less physically active and spending more time sitting, increasing our risk of developing diseases such as cancer. Only 6% of men and 4% of women meet the minimum requirement of at least 150 minutes of moderate-intense physical activity per week as outlined by the Department of Health and Social Care. Being physically active and routinely completing moderate to vigorous physical activity can reduce the risk of developing cancer by 10-24% depending on the type of cancer.


Diets low in nutritional value such as those with a high intake of processed meats, red meat and salts and those which are energy-dense, nutrient-poor (eg saturated fats, sugars and alcohol) can increase the prevalence of many cancers. On the other hand, a healthier balanced diet with foods high in fibre, fruit and veg could prevent 1 in 20 cancers.

How can I reduce my risk of developing cancer?

Taking those first steps towards a healthier lifestyle can often be daunting, but you don’t have to run a marathon, join a gym or give up all your favourite foods. You can begin by making small changes throughout your day and gradually build on your new habits.

We are all getting busier, and our diaries are quickly filling up now that we can socialise more, so finding the time to be active or more mindful of our food can be challenging. But, planning our meals, setting goals and moving more or sitting less throughout the day can make all the difference.

Here are a few simple tips that may help you make those changes:

  • Use your smartphone or a fitness tracker to monitor your steps or activity. We should all aim to hit at least 10,000 steps per day. Try getting out for a walk over lunch or suggest a walking meeting with colleagues instead of being sat at your desks.
  • Setting plans or goals to be physically active at the start of your day increases your chances of meeting those goals. Knowing what, when and for how long you intend to be active makes it easier to get moving. For example, ‘I will go for a walk before my 12.30pm meeting for 15 minutes’. Set your goal and put it in your diary.
  • Keeping a record of our food intake or physical activity can help us to monitor what we are doing. If you have access to a smartphone, you could track your diet and physical activity using apps such as MyFitnessPal.

Visit the NHS website for more information about how to live a healthier lifestyle and prevent your risk of cancer.

If you have been impacted by cancer you can find further information and support at Macmillan Cancer Support or Maggies

Follow this link for more information about World Cancer Day.

Dr Kajal Gokal

Senior Research Associate in the Centre for Lifestyle Behaviour and Medicine

Take part in our research

If you would like to take part in CLiMB's research trials, please register your interest.