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Lifestyle behind more than half a million cancers in five years

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Professor Linda Bauld
Professor Linda Bauld - Professor of Health Policy and Director of the Institute for Social Marketing at the University of Stirling, and Cancer Research UK's cancer prevention expert.

Nearly 600,000 cancer cases in the UK could have been avoided in the last five years if people had healthier lifestyles, according to new figures announced today.

More than four in 10 cancers could be prevented by changes to lifestyle, according to Cancer Research UK experts including Linda Bauld, Professor of Health Policy at the University of Stirling and the charity’s cancer prevention expert.

Smoking remains by far the biggest preventable cause of cancer in the UK, accounting for more than 314,000 cases in the past five years - nearly a fifth of all cancers. According to the Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) Integrated Household Survey, around one in five adults in Scotland smoke cigarettes, so giving up would be the best New Year resolution smokers could make.

The figures also show a further 145,000 cases in the UK could have been prevented if people had eaten a healthy balanced diet, low in red and processed meat and salt and high in vegetables, fruit and fibre. Keeping a healthy weight could have prevented around 88,000 cases in the UK. In Scotland, more than six in 10 adults are overweight or obese, according to the Scottish Government’s 2013 Health Survey.

Cutting down on alcohol, protecting skin in the sun and taking more exercise could also have helped prevent tens of thousands of people in the UK developing cancer in the past five years. Rates of alcohol consumption remain high in Scotland and around one in 10 adults report drinking on at least five days in the past week, according to the ONS’s ‘Drinking Habits Amongst Adults’ survey.

Professor Bauld, who is also Director of the Institute for Social Marketing at the University of Stirling, said: "There are more than 200 types of cancer each caused by a complex set of factors - involving both our genes and our lifestyles. There are proven ways to minimise our risk of cancer – like giving up smoking, being more active, drinking less alcohol and maintaining a healthy weight. We must make sure the public and the policy-makers know the evidence behind the benefits of these lifestyle changes is solid."

Professor Max Parkin, a Cancer Research UK statistician based at Queen Mary University of London, whose study formed the basis of the figures, said: "There’s now little doubt that certain lifestyle choices can have a big impact on cancer risk, with research around the world all pointing to the same key risk factors.

"Of course everyone enjoys some extra treats during the Christmas holidays so we don’t want to ban mince pies and wine but it’s a good time to think about taking up some healthy habits for 2015. Leading a healthy lifestyle can’t guarantee someone won’t get cancer but we can stack the odds in our favour by taking positive steps now that will help decrease our cancer risk in future."

Notes for editors
Background information

For media enquiries please contact Cancer Research UK’s Ailsa Stevens on 020 3469 8300 or, out-of-hours, the Cancer Research UK duty press officer on 07050 264 059.


The figures were calculated by the Cancer Research UK Statistical Information Team, based on figures from Parkin DM, Boyd L, Darby SC, Mesher D, Sasieni P, Walker LC. The Fraction of Cancer Attributable to Lifestyle and Environmental Factors in the UK in 2010. Br J Cancer 2011; 105, (S2):Si-S81.

Links to surveys referenced in the article:



Inadequate physical activity


UV radiation (protecting skin in the sun)




Overweight and obesity


Diet (less meat\salt, more fruit & vegetables\fibre)




All the above


Please note, some cancers are caused by more than one factor, so adding the figures for each individual factor won’t result in the total number of cancers caused by these lifestyle factors combined.

More information:

Cancer Research UK

The School of Health Sciences

The Institute for Social Marketing

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