Cancer is when abnormal cells divide in an uncontrolled way. Some cancers may eventually spread into other tissues. Cancer begins with gene changes in a cell or a few cells. These changes in cells can happen over a person’s lifetime. Abnormal cells then divide and multiply in an uncontrolled way over a period of time and this can cause a tumour to form. (For more information on ‘what is cancer?’ click here.)

Everyone has a certain chance of developing cancer, but evidence shows that there are some things that can increase our chances of developing cancer.  Age, gender, genes, environment and lifestyle factors can all influence your risk of developing cancer.


A balanced, nutritious diet can support overall wellness and can help prevent cancer, e.g. bowel cancer.  Commonly we think we need to eat less but quite often we simply need to eat more nutritious foods. We focus on what foods we shouldn’t be eating instead of the more important thing of what we should be eating.  As a population, we aren’t eating enough wholegrains, fruit and vegetables.  So, we all need to aim to have plenty of fruit and vegetables, foods high in fibre, healthy proteins and healthy fats.  At the same time, we need to reduce how much processed foods and drinks we take. Getting variety in your diet is key to ensure we are getting all the vital nutrients and minerals needed to support our body.  It is important to remember there is no one food or diet that will prevent, treat or cure cancer.  For more information on how to have a balanced diet and good nutrition, check out our Lifestyle. 

Physical Activity/Exercise

Exercise can reduce the risk of 13 different types of cancer, including breast and bowel cancer.  There are also many other benefits experienced when you are physically active, such as, improving mental health and mood, helping to control weight/fat mass (which helps reduce your cancer risk), and reducing your risk of other health problems (including heart disease and Type 2 diabetes).

When we think of physical activity/exercise, we tend to think of dedicated exercise time, but general activity level, or how sedentary we are is also important for health and wellbeing.  Remember to be active and move more,  the more active you are the better you will feel.

Excess body fat

Having excess body fat, usually referred to as being overweight or obese, can increase your chances of developing breast (in women after menopause)bowel, womb, oesophageal, kidney, pancreatic, liver, upper stomach, gallbladder, ovarian, thyroid, myeloma (a type of blood cancer), and meningioma (a type of brain tumour) cancers compared to someone who is a healthy weight/body fatTwo of these cancers are the most common cancers in the UK (breast and bowel) and three of the hardest cancers to treat (pancreatic, oesophageal and gall bladder cancer). Making small changes to your diet or lifestyle can help to improve your weight/fat mass. If you are worried about your weight or need more information, speak with your GP.  Or, if you would like to make changes to your lifestyle and improve your weight, why not use our Step into Action service: one-to-one health and wellbeing sessions that help you achieve your healthy lifestyle goal 


Although government recommendations say to limit alcohol intake to below 14 units per week, evidence would suggest there is no safe level of alcohol consumption. Alcohol intake has been found to increase your chances of developing mouth, throat, laryngeal, liver, oesophageal, breast and bowel cancers, so reducing your alcohol consumption can help reduce your risk of cancer. For help with tracking and calculating units download the Drinkaware app. 



Smoking is the most preventable cause of cancer in the world. Smoking can cause cancer of the lung, mouth, pharynx, nose and sinuses, larynx, oesophagus (food pipe), liver, pancreas, stomach, kidney, bowel, ovary, bladder, cervix, and some types of leukaemia. Cigarette smoke contains over 4,000 chemicals and some of these harmful chemicals have been found to cause DNA damage. If you smoke, the best thing you can do is quit, it’s never too late to stop. Speak to your GP or pharmacist for help or visit  


Some infections, such as human papilloma virus (HPV), human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), Epstein Barr (EBV), H.pylori and hepatitis can increase your risk of developing some cancers. Depending on the infection, there are different things you can do to help protect yourself including vaccinations and practising safe sex. 

The NHS offers the HPV vaccine to: 

– Girls from the age of 12 or 13 

– Men who have sex with men. 

– Since 2019, the HPV vaccine is also offered to girls and boys from the age of 12 or 13. 

(Your GP or local sexual health clinic can give you more information). 


Age is the single biggest risk factor for developing cancer. Cancer can occur at any age but certain age ranges put you at higher risk of certain types of cancer Generally, cancer is more common in older people so your chances of developing cancer increases with age. 


Some people may be at slightly higher risk of developing certain types of cancers due to inherited genes.  Genetic testing is available for some of these genes, e.g. BRCA 

Sun and UV

Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun and sunbeds is the main cause of skin cancer. The more sunburn and skin damage to your skin the higher your risk of skin cancer.


Air pollution, from outdoor or indoor pollution and Radon (a natural radioactive gas), can both increase the risk of developing lung cancer.  Although exposure to air pollution is relatively low in the UK, so the increased risk of cancer is generally small.

REMEMBER Not all cancers are preventable, but some lifestyle changes can help ‘stack your odds’ against developing some cancers.  

Don’t smoke/stop smoking 

Maintain a healthy amount of body fat/weight 

Be physically active 

Eat a balanced/nutritious diet, with plenty of wholegrains, fruit and veg. 

Limit alcohol intake 

Take care in the sun/never use sunbeds 

Use vaccinations, where available, e.g. HPV vaccination 



For more info on our Health Improvement services, which aim to help you make lifestyle changes, click here.