Over 40% of cancers due to lifestyle, says review

Pint of beer and cigarette stub Booze, cigarettes and inactivity are collectively bad

Related Stories

Nearly half of cancers diagnosed in the UK each year - over 130,000 in total - are caused by avoidable life choices including smoking, drinking and eating the wrong things, a review reveals.

Tobacco is the biggest culprit, causing 23% of cases in men and 15.6% in women, says the Cancer Research UK report.

Next comes a lack of fresh fruit and vegetables in men's diets, while for women it is being overweight.

The report is published in the British Journal of Cancer.

Its authors claim it is the most comprehensive analysis to date on the subject.

Lead author Prof Max Parkin said: "Many people believe cancer is down to fate or 'in the genes' and that it is the luck of the draw whether they get it.

"Looking at all the evidence, it's clear that around 40% of all cancers are caused by things we mostly have the power to change."

Weighty matters

Start Quote

We didn't expect to find that eating fruit and vegetables would prove to be so important in protecting men against cancer”

End Quote Prof Max Parkin

For men, the best advice appears to be: stop smoking, eat more fruit and veg and cut down on how much alcohol you drink.

For women, again, the reviews says the best advice is to stop smoking, but also watch your weight.

Prof Parkin said: "We didn't expect to find that eating fruit and vegetables would prove to be so important in protecting men against cancer. And among women we didn't expect being overweight to be more of a risk factor than alcohol."

In total, 14 lifestyle and environmental factors, such as where you live and the job you do, combine to cause 134,000 cancers in the UK each year.

Former cancer patient Jackie Gledhill: "My lifestyle had really gone downhill - I did go out for walks but it wasn't enough"

About 100,000 (34%) of the cancers are linked to smoking, diet, alcohol and excess weight.

One in 25 of cancers is linked to a person's job, such as being exposed to chemicals or asbestos.

Some risk factors are well established, such as smoking's link with lung cancer.

But others are less recognised.

For example, for breast cancer, nearly a 10th of the risk comes from being overweight or obese, far outweighing the impact of whether or not the woman breastfeeds or drinks alcohol.

And for oesophageal or gullet cancer, half of the risk comes from eating too little fruit and veg, while only a fifth of the risk is from alcohol, the report shows.

For stomach cancer, a fifth of the risk comes from having too much salt in the diet, data suggests.

Some cancers, like mouth and throat cancer, are caused almost entirely by lifestyle choices.

Cancer causes

But others, like gall bladder cancer, are largely unrelated to lifestyle.

The researchers base their calculations on predicted numbers of cases for 18 different types of cancer in 2010, using UK incidence figures for the 15-year period from 1993 to 2007.

Start Quote

By making small changes we can cut our risk of serious health problems ”

End Quote Public Health Minister Anne Milton

In men, 6.1% (9,600) of cancer cases were linked to a lack of fruit and vegetables, 4.9% (7,800) to occupation, 4.6% (7,300) to alcohol, 4.1% (6,500) to overweight and obesity and 3.5% (5,500) to excessive sun exposure and sunbeds.

In women, 6.9% (10,800) were linked to overweight and obesity, 3.7% (5,800) to infections such as HPV (which causes most cases of cervical cancer), 3.6% (5,600) to excessive sun exposure and sunbeds, 3.4% (5,300) to lack of fruit and vegetables and 3.3% (5,100) to alcohol.

Dr Rachel Thompson, of the World Cancer Research Fund, said the report added to the "now overwhelmingly strong evidence that our cancer risk is affected by our lifestyles".

Dr Harpal Kumar, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said leading a healthy lifestyle did not guarantee a person would not get cancer but the study showed "we can significantly stack the odds in our favour".

"If there are things we can do to reduce our risk of cancer we should do as much as we possibly can," he said.

Glyn Berwick, of Penny Brohn Cancer Care, which specialises in offering nutrition and exercise advice, agreed.

"We know from years of experience the positive impact that changing lifetsyles can have."

The president of the Royal College of Physicians, Sir Richard Thompson, said the findings were a wake-up call to the government to take stronger action on public health.

"The rising incidence of preventable cancers shows that the 'carrot' approach of voluntary agreements with industry is not enough to prompt healthy behaviours, and needs to be replaced by the 'stick' approach of legislative solutions," he said

The government said it was intending to begin a consultation on plain packaging by the end of this year.

Diane Abbott, Shadow Public Health Minister, said: "The government is failing on all the main public health issues.

"And the message from Labour, the Tory-led Public Health Committee, campaigners like Jamie Oliver and even some the government's own policy panels is clear: the government's approach to tackling lifestyle-related health problems is completely inadequate."

Public Health Minister Anne Milton said: "We all know that around 23,000 cases of lung cancer could be stopped each year in England if people didn't smoke.

"By making small changes we can cut our risk of serious health problems - give up smoking, watch what you drink, get more exercise and keep an eye on your weight."

Graphic showing causes of cancer

More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 371.

    I competently accept the risks associated with my lifestyle and agree not to whinge if I die of something linked to said lifestyle. Can't say fairer than that!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 370.

    Wow, who'd have guest.

  • rate this

    Comment number 369.

    Dr Donush
    4 Hours ago

    These ailments are self inflicted and should not be funded under the national health. Drugs, alcohol and smoke related ailmants should not receive free treatment.

    I don't know where you live, but we pay for our health service in the UK. Do you plan to give people a discount on NI if they smoke and are hence refused treatment? I'm guessing a Doctor could spell 'ailment'

  • rate this

    Comment number 368.

    Cancer is primarily is disease of age. The longer you live, the more likelihood of contracting it. You may be luck, or unlucky, to some degree. The best lifestyle to avoid cancer, is no lifestyle at all.
    That's not very helpful is it? A bit like these types of reports.

  • rate this

    Comment number 367.

    Yes you have just highlighted the difference between an individuals risk and a statistical risk. As you have no way of knowing the former it makes sense to avoid factors indicated by the later.
    And many cancers are not random, they will have a cause although finding that cause after the fact is often impossible. So the sensible thing to do is limit your risks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 366.


    Your ignorance is amazing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 365.

    My wife has never smoked; does not drink alcohol, except on a few 'special' occasions, and eats a balanced diet. Yet she has had breast cancer, lung cancer and now cancerous cells have been found in her neck. So, please do not blame her for her condition. Personally, I believe cancer has always been with us, but has remained hidden because in the past, we died of other diseases earlier in life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 364.

    The majority of UK HIV cases are due to lifestyle, yet the govt actively promotes the behaviour that spreads that. For some reason it's perfectly ok to lecture the white working class about eating, drinking and smoking, but anyone who dares suggest that homosexual sex is bad for the health risks arrest.

  • rate this

    Comment number 363.

    61. tjw

    why should the state be expected to look after anyone?

  • rate this

    Comment number 362.

    Ionising radiation would not be mobile phones, mainly that would be medical/dental X-rays. In fact according to the NRPB some 64 breast cancer a year are caused (statistically) by X-rays used in mammograms.
    Which leads me to question much of this "research".
    The majority of mesoltheliomas are caused by exposure to asbestos. So that would be work-related, of which nothing in this study.

  • rate this

    Comment number 361.

    353. I j s

    Not everyone who doesn't look after themselves die young. These things to be honest are like the lottery, it's all stochastic, my Gran developed cancer behind her eye, she's in her late 70s and she hasnt had the healthiest lifestyle, she smokes like a chimney, doesn't exercise, eats fatty foods, but she's bounced back. get with the programme

  • rate this

    Comment number 360.

    If this report was about obesity everyone would be heckling fat people and telling us it's our own fault and we should instantly change our wicked ways! But because it is something we have no control over there is no hatred or finger-pointing. Typical.

  • Comment number 359.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 358.

    Look at individuals such as Keith Richards. He seems pretty healthy for his age yet he has broken a lot of taboos in his actions. Where is his cancer? Where is his headstone?

  • rate this

    Comment number 357.

    This is all so much in conflict with the cheerleading of the gov wanting to cut our pensions; "We're all living SO much longer". No we're not.
    Aside from the fact that gov and media peddle this idea average expectancy has increased about a year in the last 30. The sins of a good lifestyle will ensure this trend is reversed

  • rate this

    Comment number 356.

    Tobacco, Drink industry globally spend £'millions in marketing & sales techniques all designed to encourage greater consumption. In some cases freebies are widely used, the ROI will be when they get consumer hooked. But hey-ho they all sign-up to voluntary codes of conduct! And herin the problem, VOLUNTARY! They know they are a major cause for ill health, & appalling social issues.

  • rate this

    Comment number 355.

    Getting cancer is a lottery. I don't smoke/drink eat my 5 a day ex runner and mountain man but still go bowel cancer. Children who haven't "ruined their lives" get it I do wish these crackpots would shut up and let us live our lives

  • rate this

    Comment number 354.

    I do not like fruit nor vegetables and only take a modicum of them in my diet if they are in the cooking and at 80 I am in excellent health. My late wife who passed away with BC would drink massive amounts of fruit drinks and also enjoyed her fruits and vegetables with her meals. Neither of us smoked nor imbibed alcohol. I stopped exercising in my 60s. My diet is principally red meat with its fat!

  • rate this

    Comment number 353.

    Yet another report from the University of the Absolutely Obvious.
    It is called evolution.
    People who do not look after themselves died young.

  • rate this

    Comment number 352.

    I often wonder if most of those who comment actually read the articles of just the headline then jump on the venom train.

    40% of cancer linked to lifestyle = 60% of cancer unattributed.

    Rather than complain about how healthy you were and how we're all picking on you, which isn't happening, how about complaining about those 40% of people who throw their lives away with things known to kill!


Page 12 of 30


More Health stories



Try our new site and tell us what you think. Learn more
Take me there

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.