Reduce your cancer risk

You can reduce your risk of cancer by having a healthy lifestyle. Find out about stopping smoking, eating a healthy diet, keeping fit and drinking less alcohol.

It's important to know your body and recognise any changes, such as lumps or unexplained bleeding, and get advice about whether they might be serious

In 2009, 156,900 people in the UK died from cancer. However, since the 1990s, survival rates in men and women have improved for most cancers.

There are no proven ways to prevent cancer, but you can reduce your risk of getting it. Risk factors you can do something about include smoking and being overweight, and there are other things you can do to reduce your risk.  

Healthy lifestyle

Leading a healthy lifestyle can help lower your risk of developing certain cancers. You can do this by:

  • eating a healthy balanced diet
  • maintaining a healthy weight
  • drinking less alcohol
  • stopping smoking
  • protecting your skin from sun damage

Eating a healthy balanced diet

Stories about various foods and diets linked to preventing cancer are often in the news. This is because a lot of research is going on into diet and cancer. But it isn’t easy to study the link between diet and cancer because there are so many different factors involved, and cancer can take years to develop.

No single food or supplement can prevent cancer from developing. Overall, research shows a link between eating certain groups of foods (rather than any specific foods, vitamins or nutrients) and a reduction in cancer risk.

Eating a healthy balanced diet may lower your risk of developing cancer. A healthy balanced diet contains: 

  • plenty of fruit and vegetables: try to eat at least five portions a day
  • plenty of bread, rice, potatoes, pasta and other starchy foods: choose wholegrain foods where possible as these contain more fibre
  • some meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein
  • some milk and dairy foods
  • just a small amount of foods and drinks high in fat or sugars, such as cakes, crisps and biscuits 

Eating a healthy balanced diet will help make sure your body gets all the nutrients it needs.

Fibre

Evidence consistently suggests that eating plenty of fibre can reduce the risk of bowel cancer. Diets high in fibre can help keep your bowel healthy and prevent constipation.

Fibre-rich foods include wholegrain pasta, bread, breakfast cereals and rice. Pulses, fruit and vegetables are also good sources of fibre. 

Red and processed meat

Meat is a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals, such as iron and zinc. But evidence shows that there is probably a link between eating red and processed meat, and the risk of bowel cancer. People who eat a lot of these meats have a higher risk of getting bowel cancer than people who eat small amounts.

Beef, pork and lamb are all red meat. Processed meats include bacon, sausages, salami and ham.

If you eat more than 90 grams of red or processed meat a day (the equivalent of about three thin-cut slices of roast beef, lamb or pork, where each slice is about the size of half a piece of sliced bread), it is recommended that you cut down to 70 grams. You can find out more about eating red and processed meat.

Beta-carotene supplements

Beta-carotene, often found in antioxidant supplements, has been found to increase the risk of lung cancer developing in smokers and people who have been heavily exposed to asbestos at work. It is possible that taking large amounts of beta-carotene supplements would also increase the risk of cancer in other people.

Maintaining a healthy weight

In England, over 60% of the population is overweight or obese. Being overweight or obese can increase your risk of some cancers, such as:

Being a healthy weight can reduce your risk of developing cancer. You can find out whether you are a healthy weight by using the BMI healthy weight calculator.

You can find information and tips on how to start losing weight.

Drinking less alcohol

Drinking alcohol is known to increase your risk of some cancers, including:

It is probably a cause of other cancers such as colorectal cancer in women and liver cancer.

Women shouldn't regularly drink more than 2-3 units of alcohol a day, and men shouldn't regularly drink more than 3-4 units a day.

"Regularly" means every day or on most days of the week. Use the alcohol unit calculator to find out how many units are in different alcoholic drinks. 

Stopping smoking

Lung cancer is responsible for around a quarter of cancer deaths in the UK, and 90% of lung cancer cases are related to smoking.

"Stopping smoking greatly cuts the risk of developing cancer," says Hazel Nunn, Cancer Research UK's health information officer. "The earlier you stop, the greater the impact. But it's never too late to quit. People who quit smoking at 30 live nearly as long as non-smokers, and those who quit at 50 can still undo half the damage."

There is support to help you stop smoking.

Protect your skin from sun damage

Taking care in the sun so that you don't get burned is important for preventing skin cancer. Follow Cancer Research UK's SunSmart plan to protect yourself:

  • Spend time in the shade between 11am and 3pm.
  • Make sure you never burn.
  • Cover yourself up with a T-shirt, hat and sunglasses.
  • Take care not to let children get burned.
  • Use sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15.

Keep an eye on any moles or freckles you have. If they change at all (for example, get bigger or begin bleeding), see your GP as this can be an early sign of cancer. The earlier skin cancer is caught, the easier it is to treat, so see your GP as soon as possible.

We need sunlight on our skin so that our bodies can produce vitamin D, which is essential for healthy bones. Read about sunlight and vitamin D to find out how much sunlight you need.

Know your body

It's important to know your body and recognise any changes, such as lumps or unexplained bleeding, and to get advice about whether they might be serious. 

Page last reviewed: 04/12/2013

Next review due: 04/12/2015

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Comments

The 2 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Susie said on 04 July 2012

Hi Anania, thanks for commenting. You're right, there are some cancer risk factors we can't do anything about, such as our age, family history and medical history. The aim of this article is to highlight some of the things we can do something about. If you would like to look in more detail at specific cancers, incidence and preventative measures, you can look at the NHS Choices cancer information:
http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Cancer/Pages/Introduction.aspx

or Cancer Research UK's website:
http://cancerhelp.cancerresearchuk.org/#

I hope this helps.
Susie at NHS Choices

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Anania said on 17 June 2012

An article that simply lists some ways to reduce some cancer risks is almost pointless. Do these measures reduce risk by 1% in 1% of cancers or perhaps they reduce risk by 50% in 100% of cancers? Who knows? This article has no statistics or measures to show how effective these lifestyle changes are. I would want to see how these factors relate to other risks that cannot be changed, like age, family history, genes, and chance, I suspect the biggest risk for most cancers is age and therefore no amount of lifestyle change will compensate for the risk of aging. Is there anywhere to get actual facts on cancer risk, incidence rates, and risk factors.

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