Preventative tips

MAGS BEAL, CANCER CARE CLINICAL OPERATIONS MANAGER

How can I help reduce my risk of getting cancer?

14 June 2024

Cancer needs no introduction. 1 in 2 people in the UK will be diagnosed with some form of cancer during their lifetime1 and there are more than 385,000 new cancer cases in the UK every year – over 1,000 per day.2

We all know the impact cancer can have on people and their families, but we’re learning more about it all the time, and that there are things we can do to help reduce our risk. Did you know it’s estimated that 40% of all cancer cases in this country could be prevented?3

Of course, with so much information available, there’s also plenty of misinformation and misunderstanding. So, let’s sort the facts from the fiction once and for all.

What can I do to help reduce the risk of getting cancer?

There are more than 200 different types of cancer, each with its own diagnosis and treatment path. While some cancers may be unavoidable, there are certain fundamental lifestyle choices you can make to help reduce your chances of developing others.

1) Don’t smoke

Smoking causes at least 15 types of cancer.4 Stopping at any time of life can reduce your risk – according to Cancer Research UK, “If you smoke, the best thing you can do for your health is quit”.

2) Maintain a healthy weight

Being overweight is the second biggest cause of cancer.5 That’s because body fat produces hormones and sends messages around the body that can cause damage to other cells.

Maintaining a healthy weight can actually reduce the risk of 13 different types of cancer.5

3) Eat healthily

A healthy, balanced diet is a great way to avoid the risks associated with obesity, as mentioned above. But healthy, whole foods can also help reduce the risk of developing certain cancers.

Eating high fibre foods such as wholegrains, for example, can help reduce your risk of bowel cancer.

>We explore how to lose weight safely

4) Take care in the sun

Too much UV radiation can damage DNA in your skin cells and cause skin cancer. Cover up in the sunshine, use a high SPF sunscreen and avoid sunbeds.

>Read our top tips for staying safe in the sun

5) Cut down on alcohol

Alcohol can cause seven types of cancer.6 These include mouth, bowel and breast cancer, and it’s the alcohol itself that causes the damage, so it doesn’t matter what specific drink you’re having.

Alcohol breaks down into a chemical that can harm cells. It can also affect the body’s internal signals, causing cells to divide more often. All in all, cutting down on alcohol will reduce your cancer risk, whatever your drinking habits.

10 myths and misconceptions

Understanding what can cause cancer – and what we can do to reduce the risks – is vitally important. But it’s also useful to know what doesn’t cause cancer, so we don’t worry needlessly or focus our energy in the wrong areas. Not all of the information out there is reliable.

Here are 10 common myths, and the truth behind them.7

1) Mobile phones

Contrary to rumours that the electromagnetic waves or radiation from mobile phones are dangerous, mobile phones do not cause cancer. The radiation that phones and phone masts transmit is too weak to damage DNA. And there’s no good evidence that 4G or 5G networks cause cancer either.

2 Plastic bottles

It was once thought that chemicals like bisphenol A (BPA), which appear in some plastics, could get into food or drink and cause cancer.

Thankfully that’s not the case and it’s safe to use plastic bottles, containers and cling film. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) constantly checks to ensure this. Cutting down on using these items can have a positive impact on the environment, though, so it’s always worth considering alternatives.

3) Artificial sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, saccharin, sorbitol and xylitol, are chemicals that appear in fizzy drinks, chewing gum and sweets.

There isn’t any good evidence that these artificial sweeteners cause cancer and these ingredients are carefully regulated.

4) Stress

Stress doesn’t directly cause cancer. It does, however, have a wide impact on your life. It can impact energy levels, eating habits and digestion, which increase the risk of weight gain, and it can cause people to smoke or drink more.

As we’ve already explored, all these lifestyle factors can increase your cancer risk.

5) GM foods

In the UK, genetically modified foods are mostly used in animal feed. There’s no evidence that they cause cancer, nor any good explanation of how they could.

In the US, where GM foods are more common, there are no additional cases of cancer linked to them.

6) Pesticides

There may be small amounts of pesticides and herbicides in the food we eat, but they do not increase the risk of cancer in people.

The FSA ensures that pesticide levels in food are not harmful.

7) Medical scans

High levels of ionising radiation can cause cancer, but x-rays and other diagnostic scans expose us to very low levels, which are unlikely to harm us. This is also true of airport scanners.

8) Cosmetics

The UK and EU have strict regulations about the ingredients in cosmetics. As long as you buy them from reputable retailers, they should be safe.

This is also true of deodorants, hair dye, talcum powder and parabens.

9) An injury to the breast

There’s no evidence that an impact to the breast could cause cancer. But it’s possible that an examination after an injury could reveal cancer that’s already there.

10) Dairy products

Dairy products like milk and cheese contain proteins that are important to our health. There is no evidence that they increase the risk of any form of cancer. In fact, there’s good evidence that milk and dairy products actually reduce the risk of bowel cancer.

More in depth information on these cancer myths is available at Cancer Research UK7 and you can find out more about cancer by reading our collection of articles on the subject.

References 

  1. Cancer - NHS
  2. Cancer Statistics for the UK - Cancer Research UK
  3. Causes of cancer and reducing your risk - Cancer Research UK
  4. Smoking, tobacco and cancer - Cancer Research UK
  5. How does obesity cause cancer? - Cancer Research UK
  6. Alcohol and cancer - Cancer Research UK 
  7. Cancer Myths - Cancer Research UK