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Ten Most Powerful Steps to Prevent Cancer

Cancer is a major public health problem. In 2012, there were 32 million people suffering from cancer worldwide. About 8.2 million people died from cancer and 14.1 million new cases were diagnosed in that year. Studies have shown that most cancer cases are caused by lifestyle or environmental related factors such as unhealthy diet, smoking, drinking, sun exposure, infection and pollution. Many of these risk factors can be prevented. Cancer Research UK published a poster, showing how many cancer cases can be prevented. Click Here for a higher quality PDF version.


1. Stop smoking

Tobacco use is the most important risk factor for cancer, causing around 20% of global cancer deaths and around 70% of global lung cancer deaths. In 2012, 1.59 million of the 8.2 million cancer deaths were due to lung cancer. In addition to lung cancer, tobacco use is also linked to cancer of oesophagus, throat, mouth, kidney, bladder, pancreas, stomach and cervix. It is estimated that every 15 cigarettes smoked cause one DNA mutation in the lungs. Notably, using any type of tobacco puts you on a collision course with cancer. Smokeless tobacco (also called oral tobacco, chewing tobacco or snuff) causes oral, oesophageal and pancreatic cancer. Even if you don't use tobacco, exposure to second-hand smoke (passive smoking) increases your risk of lung cancer as well.

2. Drink less alcohol

Modest alcohol intake, particularly in the form of red wine, can be good for health. This effect appears to be related increased high-density lipoprotein (HDL), thus reducing the risk of atherosclerosis. In addition, modest intake of alcohol also increases the body's sensitivity to insulin. However, excessive alcohol drinking is bad for our health. It is a risk factor for many cancer types including liver cancer, bowel cancer, breast cancer and mouth cancer. In fact, alcohol consumption causes around 3% of cancer deaths in the western countries. The NHS recommends that women should not regularly drink more than 2-3 units of alcohol a day, and men should not regularly drink more than 3-4 units a day.

3. Eat a healthy, balanced diet

Dietary modification is an important approach to cancer control. Up to 75 per cent of the risk of colorectal cancer is now believed to be due to diets that are high in red meats and low in vegetables, fruits and whole grains. A healthier diet should be low in red meat and high in whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables a day were given as the magic number for good diet in a recent research. The intake of red meat should be no more than 30g a day for men, and no more than 25g a day for women.

4. Maintain a healthy weight

Obesity increases the risk of some cancers, including breast, prostate, endometrium, bowel, pancreas and kidney cancers. It is thought that more than 1 in 20 cancers in the UK are linked to being overweight or obese. Keeping one’s BMI below 25 can lead to an 18% lower risk of cancer. Fat cells in our body are active and affect metabolism of hormones and proteins. Obesity changes the levels of sex hormones, like oestrogen and testosterone, in the body, therefore increase the risk of cancer. Moreover, obesity leads to a much higher risk of heart disease, joint problems, and dozens of other medical conditions.

5. Stay physically active

Being physically active helps maintain a healthy weight. In addition, physical activity on its own can lower the risk of breast cancer and colon cancer. You do not need to be an athlete to get the benefit of exercise. Activities such as regular brisk walking, biking, dancing or any exercise that raises your heart rate and makes you sweat will be beneficial. As a general goal, include at least 30 minutes of physical activity in your daily routine.

6. Protect your skin from sun damage

Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation is a major risk factor for most skin cancers, especially melanoma, a major cause of cancer death in the younger population. Sunlight is the main source of UV light. Up to 86 per cent of the risk of skin cancer is thought to be linked to excessive sun exposure. To protect your skin from the sun, use sunscreen every time when you go outdoors and keep covered with a broad hat and sunglasses. Avoid tanning beds and sunlamps as these are just as damaging as natural sunlight.

7. Be aware of infections and get your vaccinations

Infectious agents are responsible for almost 22% of cancer deaths in the developing world and 6% in industrialized countries. Human papillomavirus (HPV) is associated with cervical cancer, skin and mouth cancers. The HPV vaccine is available to adolescents and adults. This vaccine can effective block HPV infection and reduce HPV related cancers.

Similarly, Hepatitis B and C can increase the risk of developing liver cancer. The hepatitis B vaccine has led to a 96% decrease in hepatitis B infections, which is related to over 50% of the cases of a liver cancer.

Infection of Helicobacter pylori causes stomach ulcers, gastritis, and increases the risk of stomach cancer. In some countries, the parasitic infection schistosomiasis increases the risk of bladder cancer. Preventive measures include prevention of infection, a timely diagnosis and treatment.

8. Avoid taking menopausal hormone therapy

Hormone replacement therapy, which is used to relieve symptoms of the menopause in women, increases the risk of breast and ovary cancers. Studies show this treatment has a mixed effect on women’s health, increasing the risk of some diseases and lowering the risk of others. In the UK, women who are using combined oestrogen and progestogen therapy have double the risk of breast cancer compared to non-users. And if they use hormone replacement therapy for over 10 years, their risks are even higher. For every 1000 women using any type of hormone replacement therapy for 5 years from age 50, there is 1 extra case of ovarian cancer. In general, hormone replacement therapy should be for the shortest time possible and closely monitored by doctors.

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9. Avoid occupational and environmental carcinogens

People who work in certain jobs, especially in the manufacturing industry, may have higher risks of cancer because of exposures to some chemicals, asbestos and radiation. Scientists estimate that occupational exposure to cancer-causing chemicals is responsible for nearly 4% of cancer cases in the UK. The cancer types include lung cancer, bladder cancer and blood cancer (leukaemia and lymphoma). Mesothelioma (cancer of the outer lining of the lung or chest cavity) is caused by work-related exposure to asbestos. Handling of these dangerous chemicals at work usually have strict guidelines, staffs should stick to safety rules, wear personal protective equipment and keep their exposure within safety limits.

Environmental pollution of air, water and soil with carcinogenic chemicals accounts for 1–4% of all cancers. Exposure to carcinogenic chemicals in the environment can occur through drinking water or pollution of indoor and ambient air. While it is impossible to avoid all man-made and natural chemicals, proper measurement to avoid polluted water and air will help in reducing the cancer risk.

10. Knowing your body and get screened regularly

Regular screenings and self-exams can increase your chances of discovering various types of cancers early, when treatment is most likely to be successful. For instance, breast cancer screening remains the single best way to protect yourself from the disease. It does not help to prevent cancer, but it can help find cancer early when it is most treatable and curable. There are national-wide screening schemes for breast, cervix and bowel cancers in many of developed countries.

People with a strong family history of cancer should take special steps to protect themselves. A doctor or genetic counsellor can help you understand your family history of the disease.

Many people think cancers are due to bad luck of genetic mutations and cannot be avoided, but that is not true. Scientific studies have shown that up to 9 in 10 cancer cases result from avoidable factors such as smoking, drinking, unhealthy diet, sun exposure, infection and pollution. Experts believe that many cases of cancer are preventable by major lifestyle changes.


Randy on January 11, 2019:

Good article. Clear points.

Stella Kaye from UK on April 05, 2017:

Well written and informative article.

SandyBishop on October 12, 2016:

Well written and informative!

confused on April 24, 2016:

If menopausal hormone therapy increases the chance of cancers, then why is it still on offer for women? Surely the risk of cancer hugely outweighs the symptoms of menopause, for which there may be alternatives?

Xinli on April 24, 2016:

Had never even heard of menopausal hormone therapy - very informative and concise article

Rita from North Long Beach, California on April 05, 2016:

Good points.

HeathLover on January 02, 2016:

Should the NHS pay people to stop smoking, alcohol abuse and other unhealthy lifestyles? Until now many people cannot accept this proposal. This article does show huge benefit of lifestyle changes, not only to the individuals affected but also to the society in whole.

Didn't know on January 01, 2016:

i had no idea about most of this. really interesting article.

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