Can Changing Your Habits Affect Your Risk of Cancer?

Updated: May 5

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 effective stop smoking aid. The medication works by blocking the nicotine receptors in your brain making the act of smoking unpleasant. Typically this is a 6 week course of medication with the first few weeks you can still smoke with the meds (although you won’t want to after a few days).

  • Counselling and support - This can be very effective to find out what actions and behaviours trigger your smoking habit so you can effectively plan for these situations. For example, if you often smoke after lunch, you could substitute this with a short 10 minute walk. By doing something else you take your mind off the craving and in this case get fitter too.

  • Make yourself accountable - Letting your friends and colleagues know about your quitting efforts is called social liberation and a way of increasing your accountability to follow through with your stop smoking efforts. The more people who know of your goals, the more motivated you become to stay on track so you do not disappoint yourself or your peers.

  • Just say no - At social events if someone asks if you smoke say “no” don’t say “I’ve quit” or “I’m trying to give up” as this opens up the door to temptation. Misery loves company so these lines lead to replies such as “go on, one won’t hurt you” or similar. If you say “no” they’ll just move on and won’t say any more.

  • Keep a collection of the money - Use the money you would normally waste on cigarettes and plan a trip, purchase something nice, or donate the money to charity, all as a way to reward yourself for staying strong and doing something positive with the money you’ve saved.

For more stop smoking advice you can also check out the free NHS stop smoking service via the link below:


Approx. 60% of the UK population is classed as overweight or obese (BMI > 24.9 kg/m2). While it is important to feel confident and valued as an individual at any size, it is also important to understand the risks associated with carrying excess weight and strive to take healthy measures to bring your weight under control. Excess body fat is associated with an increased risk for a number of lifestyle diseases and cancer is no different. 1 in 20 (or 5%) of cancer cases in the UK are linked to being overweight or obese. While it is not fully understood why excess body fat increases your cancer risk, research so far has found possible links from altered sex hormone levels, increased levels of inflammatory cytokines leading to chronic inflammation, and increased insulin and other growth factors signaling cells to divide more often increasing the opportunity for errors to occur. Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight can be difficult for many people but is achievable for everyone when following good evidence-based advice that induces long-term behaviour change. If you are overweight it probably didn’t happen overnight, so expecting to lose the weight very quickly is unrealistic. For more information on how to lose weight and keep it off forever, check out my blog on weight loss (link below) or for a more detailed guide to nutrition check out my book Eat Move Perform: Volume 1 - Nutrition and Supplements, available online and from all good book stores.


Fruit and vegetables are the best sources of a number of antioxidants (antioxidants are specialist chemicals which help to prevent DNA mutations caused by free-radicals). Fruit and vegetables are also a great source of fibre, which is an independent risk factor which we’ll cover later. You have no doubt heard the phrase “eat your 5-a-day” but did you know that eating 5 portions of fruit and vegetables per day is seen as the minimum target to aim for and not the ideal? In fact, the ideal amount of fruit and vegetables is more than 9 portions per day and with as much variety as possible. Long-term studies have shown that people who eat their so called 5-a-day had a 9% lower risk of developing cancer. But, those who ate more than 8-a-day had an 11% risk reduction. When it comes to getting the most from your diet it pays to follow two pieces of advice:

  1. Eat the rainbow &

  2. Eat a varied diet.


Regular excess alcohol consumption increases the risk of developing a number of diseases including cancers of the mouth, throat, larynx, oesophagus, breast, liver, and bowel. It is estimated that drinking less alcohol could prevent 12,800 cancer cases per year in the UK alone. Regular alcohol consumption can also have a dramatic effect on your weight due to excess dietary calories. For example, a single pint of 5% beer contains on average 250 calories, therefore, drinking just 4 pints of beer in an evening equals almost 1,000 excess calories. It is recommended by the UK Chief Medical Officers to consume less than 14 units of alcohol per week, and include 2 - 3 alcohol-free days per week.

Image from:

To help keep track of your alcohol intake I would recommend the drinkware app or website (link below), or as a very basic rule of thumb, drink less than 7 alcoholic drinks per week.


Being outdoors can be very beneficial to your physical, mental, and emotional health and is highly recommended for all populations of all ages. Sunlight is also good for your health by helping to regulate your natural circadian rhythm (a.k.a. your body clock) and providing the best possible source of Vitamin D between March and October in the UK. However, overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun (or sunbeds) is the main cause of skin cancer and you should therefore take care when in the sun to minimise these risks. Ultraviolet light has 2 main forms UVA and UVB. UVB is responsible for the burning that occurs from prolonged, unprotected sun exposure (think B for burn). The sun protection factor (or SPF) that is displayed on suncream is a guide to how much protection you receive from UVB radiation. The amount of protection from using suncream increases with an increase in SPF but your ability to get a tan is not affected by which SPF you choose. No suncream will filter 100% of UVB and you may be shocked by the differences in protection as the protection received does not increase in a linear fashion. Here is a guide to the different SPFs:

As you can see suncream with an SPF below 10 offer quite poor levels of protection and there are no significant levels of increased protection with SPFs above 30. Therefore, as long as you use at least a suncream with an SPF of 30 you will be staying sun safe. But, UVB protection is only half the story. UVA radiation penetrates deeper into your skin and causes premature ageing of the skin (think A for age). This is why people who spend unhealthy amounts of time in the sun or on sunbeds often get more wrinkles and a leathery look to their skin. UVA protection is sometimes less obvious than UVB SPF but is included on all quality suncream bottles. UVA protection is on a star scale from 1 star (worst) to 5 stars (best).

As a good general rule, always chose a suncream from a trusted provider with a 3 star minimum UVA rating and an SPF of 30+. In addition to using suncream here are some other bits of advice to staying sun safe.

  • Avoid the sun during peak hours (11 am - 3 pm) - During this time try to spend more time in the shade than in the sun.

  • Wear protective clothing - A hat, sunglasses, t-shirt or other top are all advised to keep your sensitive areas protected.

  • Apply suncream liberally and often - Do not believe “all-day protection” claims. Reapply every 2 - 4 hours, after swimming or towelling, or whenever you may feel you are burning. Use your common sense really.

  • Consider your skin tone - If you are very pale then you are at a higher risk of burning and need to reapply more often. If you have dark skin you may be able to stay in the sun for longer without burning but you can still cause damage to your skin, so please still use suncream.

  • Check your moles - If you have any large moles or there has been a change to the appearance of any moles please see your doctor to have this checked. Early detection of any nasty melanomas is always the best course of action for increasing your chances of a positive outcome.


Fibre is a general term for certain types of carbohydrates that have benefits on digestion by affecting how food waste travels through your bowel. There are two types of fibre, soluble and insoluble and both aid in digestion. Fibre works by absorbing water to keep the bowel movements soft and able to move through the bowel easily. It also aids in nutrient absorption by slowing how long your food waste takes to travel through the bowel, giving plenty of time for the essential nutrients to be absorbed. For best guidance, try to consume 30 grams of fibre per day to help lower your risk of bowel cancer. See the below table for example sources of fibre that you can add more regularly to your diet.


The health benefits of exercise are extremely well known, ranging from aiding in weight loss and improving fitness to helping with mental health issues and boosting immunity. It may come as no surprise then that remaining physically active can also help reduce your risk of cancer. While the evidence for the benefits of exercise on cancer risk reduction comes from observational studies that cannot be seen as a direct causal relationship, there is a very strong association between physical activity levels and cancer rates. For example, exercise has been linked to a 15% lower risk of bladder cancer, up to 21% lower risk of breast cancer, a 19% reduction in colon cancer, a 20% lower risk of endometrial cancer, a 21% lower risk of oesophageal cancer, a 12% lower risk of kidney cancer, and a 19% lower risk of stomach cancer. To reduce your risk of cancer it is recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), to adhere to a minimum of:

  • 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise per week.

  • Include resistance training (i.e. lifting weights or bodyweight exercises) at least twice/week focusing on predominately compound exercises (i.e. exercise that uses multiple joints at the same time such as squats, deadlifts, bench press, pull-ups etc).

  • Include basic mobility/flexibility exercises to maintain a full range of motion.

As mentioned earlier, anyone of any age can develop cancer and sometimes this can appear to be just a case of bad luck. However, there is a strong link between developing cancer and the above-mentioned lifestyle risk factors. Therefore, making the changes listed above to your lifestyle habits will help to lower your risk of developing cancer and hopefully keep you cancer-free for many years to come.

One final note is you know your body better than anyone. It is important to perform regular self-examinations, particularly of your breasts and/or testicles. If you notice any changes such as lumps, lesions, growths, etc. then make an appointment with your GP as soon as possible as nothing can replace their medical expertise in this situation. If it is cancer, early detection and good general health is your best shot for a positive prognosis.


89 views1 comment

Related Posts

See All