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 531.

    Stats Stats Stats - so is a smoker 23% more likely to get cancer than a non smoker, or is it that 23% of smokers will get cancer? If the first one, 23% higher than what, if the second one, what is the chance of a non-smoker getting cancer?

    These "reports" love to show scary percentages without giving the full facts

  • rate this

    Comment number 530.

    Nothing can stop you getting cancer, but a healthy life style can minimise your chances, (not guarantee you won’t get it and there can be a genetic factor in some cases). Choose to accept the increased risk if you want, but don’t be in denial the increased risk is substantial.

  • rate this

    Comment number 529.

    they already do via their taxes and smokers more than pay for the whole NHS so they are subsiding your taxes so perhaps you should pay your fair share.
    Besides show me one person who has not got sick or died because they did not drink smoke or eat to excess.
    No matter what people do or dont do they will still get sick too hard for you to understand?

  • rate this

    Comment number 528.

    So, the majority of cancers don't have anything to do with lifestyle, diet or exercise. Lets get this into perspective. Life is for living.

    (AV8 - smokers do pay enormously via tax for their healthcare by about £4 on every packet of cigarettes, so are net contributers to the Health Service.)

  • Comment number 527.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 526.

    Choose to take the risk if you like but don’t kid yourself that it makes no difference without smoking lung cancer would go from being one of the most common cancers to one of the rarest. Yes even if you don’t smoke you can get lung cancer but the chance is massively smaller.

  • rate this

    Comment number 525.


    Doesn't the report state very clearly that it is 40% of cancers that are caused by lifestyle choices, not ALL. Perhaps when making such patronising comments you should think a little first. Or better still read the title properly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 524.

    Here we go again, the government and authorities trying to dictate how we live. People know their diet might not be good but it's what they want and lately it is increasingly down to what they can afford. The government wants it both ways, they tell us to eat more fruit and vegetables yet they moan because people are living longer and it causing a pension problem. Just leave us alone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 523.

    I'm amazed how many people react to this by posting along the "death is not preventable" line. What we should be taking away from these figures is that we CAN improve our odds (a little bit) of living longer, healthier lives. And munching the occasional apple or playing a bit of sport is hardly a big sacrifice. Kicking nicotine addiction is much harder, but will also save you >£1000 a year.

  • rate this

    Comment number 522.

    We are all living too long anyway. One of the biggest causes of cancer is stress according to the experts last time.
    Seems the message today is live long, be sad not happy and if you dare be happy you wont have any money in your old age.
    We are all going to die one day but let us live until we die for goodness sake.

  • rate this

    Comment number 521.

    In China, many years ago, a doctor was paid for keeping their patients free of illness. People paid a doctor to 'prevent' illness, if the doctor failed, he was dimissed. It was called 'prevention' something the NHS and the population of this country should embrace. The greatest gift is health, it comes free and perhaps that is why so many seem to not value it at all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 520.

    I am one of those people who according to that 'research' NEVER should've gotten cancer! I was misdiagnosed for almost a year because I was so "young and fit". I never smoked, went for regular checkups, exercised, ate a healthy vegetarian diet! Result- cancer under 40. 40% is not very much; so stop with the "smoking is bad" studies and concentrate on finding a CURE instead of blaming the patient.

  • rate this

    Comment number 519.

    To those of you who think that people who don't smoke, drink only moderately, and eat and exercise sensibly, are somehow leading miserable lives: please stop trying to kid yourselves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 518.

    Alternative headline: "Nearly 60% of cancers not due to lifestyle, says review". It's a personal choice, but I will take a risk with the things I love to do in life. I'm happy to skip sunbeds and smoking, but why give up meat and wine just to (statistically) live a few more years frugally?

  • rate this

    Comment number 517.

    377, Did you not mention the benefits of MODERATION in drinking and smoking? There is a difference. I feel more sympathy for people who simply cannot afford a nutritious diet due to the crippling cost of living in this country. You cant give it to the greed of the energy companies and afford to heat your home adequately or eat a balanced diet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 516.

    Everything happens for a reason.

    One fail safe way of making sure you don't get cancer is to not be born. Once you are here you've got to eat and do what gives a live a life worth having.

    Nowt so sure a fact of life than that you're going to die.

  • rate this

    Comment number 515.

    In the USA tobacco and alcohol are taxed a lot more then anything else because of so called bad habits. Food on the other hand is hardly taxed at all and could very well be the real reason why people get cancer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 514.

    I see from the last graphic that the causes of gullet cancer have been apportioned in 159.2% of cases.

    Does this mean that if everybody avoided the risk factors there would be negative gullet cancer ... anti-cancer if you will?

  • rate this

    Comment number 513.

    To the people here making the case that "I or someone I know didn't smoke, ate well etc. but still got cancer": half the risk is still a real risk. We don't yet know how to prevent cancer entirely by any means; all we do know is how to play the odds. And each of us can choose to adopt the half-risk lifestyle, or not to adopt it. All this study is saying is that it is a half-risk lifestyle.

  • rate this

    Comment number 512.

    511 Ivan Idea

    Suppose everyone poster in this forum had an exception - then that would be a sample size of 510. That is a drop in the ocean compared to the size of the studies in the BMJ which have sample sizes of 150,000.


Page 4 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.