Can Changing Your Habits Affect Your Risk of Cancer?

Updated: May 5, 2021

There are more than 360,000 new cancer cases each year in the UK (that’s nearly 990 cases each day!). More than a third (36%) of all diagnosed cancer cases are in people aged 75 and over. As a result, cancer is often called “a disease of ageing”. However, cancer affects people of all ages and not just the elderly. Sadly even children are not safe from this deadly disease. The most common forms of cancer in the UK are breast, prostate, lung, bowel, and skin cancer, with the top 4 cancers accounting for more than half (53%) of all new cancer cases. The good news is that cancer survival rates are improving but we are far from having a cure.

Sometimes a cancer diagnosis can be just bad luck with no obvious cause. However, 40% of all cancers can be prevented by making positive changes to your lifestyle. The lifestyle factors that have the most significant impact on your cancer risk are smoking, excess weight, low fruit and vegetable intake, excess alcohol consumption, not staying safe in the sun, eating low amounts of fibre, and low levels of physical activity. While there are a number of risk factors that are out of your control such as genetics and other chronic health conditions, this does not lessen the benefits of taking ownership of the factors that you can affect in your lifestyle. It is important to do everything you can to limit your risk of developing cancer by addressing key lifestyle factors to try and beat the odds and stay cancer free.

What is Cancer?

Cancer is the name given to a collection of diseases that are caused by the uncontrolled division of abnormal cells in a part of the body. These uncontrolled divisions or mutations occur as a result of errors being made in the replication of your DNA that are not detected by your body’s error detection methods. Your body has a number of ways to help detect mutations to your DNA and remove them before they can become an issue. However, this system is not perfect and sometimes mutations are missed. As these missed mutations accumulate your risk of developing cancer increases. As a result, the longer you live, the more time you have for missed mutations to accumulate and cause health issues. This is why the highest incidence of cancer cases are in patients over the age of 75.

For cancer to develop it must posses 9 distinct characteristics that allow it to have a negative effect on your health. These characteristics are known as the ‘hallmarks of cancer’ and are as follows:

  1. Self-sufficiency in growth signals - “accelerator pedal stuck on”

  2. Insensitivity to anti-growth signals - “brakes don’t work”

  3. Evading apoptosis - “won’t be killed by body’s defences”

  4. Evading immune destruction - “immune system can’t find it”

  5. Limitless replicative potential - ”infinite ability to breed”

  6. Sustained angiogenesis - “tells the body to give it a blood supply”

  7. Tissue invasion and metastasis - “travels to different areas and get‘s inside other tissues”

  8. Tumour promoting inflammation - “an ideal environment for cancer to grow”

  9. Genomic instability - “DNA becomes mutated and more errors occur”

A basic understanding of the complexity of how cancer develops can help to inform your lifestyle choices because if you know that certain actions increase these hallmarks of cancer you can take action to reduce or eliminate unnecessary risk factors.


Smoking is the single most avoidable cause of cancer with roughly 1 in 4 (28%) of all cancer cases being linked to smoking. Smoking is linked to at least 15 different types of cancer including cancers of the lungs, oesophagus, throat, bladder, pancreas, kidneys, liver, stomach, bowel, cervix, ovaries, and some forms of leukaemia. Smoking not only causes cancer but also a number of life-threatening diseases such as heart disease, stroke, emphysema, COPD, and more. On average, two thirds of smokers will die from smoking related diseases and lose an average of 10 years of life when compared to non-smokers. However, it is never too late to quit smoking with notable improvements seen in your health from just 24 hours after your last smoke and improving each day you remain smoke-free. Smoking is not just cigarettes it includes pipes, cigars, shisha, and rolling tobacco. Smoking alternatives such as e-cigarettes (a.k.a. Vaping) while may have a lower amount of risk, they are not risk free and have been linked with increased cancer risk and respiratory diseases. If you are a smoker, here are some tips to help you quit and lower your risk of disease.

  • Nicotine Replacement Therapy - Patches, gum, lozenges etc. are an effective way to aid in your quit attempts. These can be obtained from a pharmacy without prescription and are best utilised by using a patch for your baseline cravings and an additional item such as gum to help with cravings.

  • Champix - Champix is a prescription medication available from your GP and is another ef