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Most people who get cancer are over 65. It’s relatively rare for young people (those under 50) to get cancer. If you have only one elderly relative with cancer, you’re not usually at a significantly increased risk of getting the same cancer yourself.  Only a minority of cancers (5 to 10%, or less than 10 out of 100 cases) are due to your genetics. 

The causes of cancer generally fall into two camps - things we can control and others we can’t. The latter includes random changes to genes as we get older or those passed through families.


Research shows that around 40% of all cancers in the UK could be prevented by simple changes to lifestyle. In fact, findings published in the British Journal of Cancer (2018) showed more than 135,000 cases of cancer could be prevented in the UK annually, through lifestyle changes. If there was a pill to achieve such benefits, we’d be beating a path to our doctor’s door, but we can improve our odds by making some simple lifestyle choices. 

Stopping smoking

Smoking is the biggest preventable cause of cancer and is linked to at least 15 different types of cancer contributing to 54,300 cases every year in the UK. It causes around 7 in 10 lung cancer cases and is the most common cause of cancer death.

The number of years spent smoking affects cancer risk most strongly and the more cigarettes smoked each day, the higher the risk of cancer.

Smoking rates in the UK have fallen considerably in the last decade accompanied by a fall in the number of cancer cases caused by smoking over the last five years. It’s never too late to get help from the different quit smoking services and become tobacco free. Find out more about how you can reduce your cancer risk by giving up smoking.

Maintaining a healthy weight

Being overweight is the second biggest cause of cancer in the UK and is linked to 13 different types of cancer. There are around 22,800 cases of cancer every year that can be linked to people being overweight or obese. Unlike smoking, obesity levels have risen over the last two decades, so it’s likely we’ll see more and more cancers linked to obesity.

Obesity is caused by taking in more calories in food and drinks than those burned through physical activity. Busy lifestyles, advertising, confusing food labels, fast food, bigger portions, and the type of foods available can make it difficult to make healthy eating options. However, making the right food choices and maintaining regular activity is important in reducing cancer. Read more about healthy living here.

Staying safe in the sun

We look forward to seeing the sun shine in the UK so it’s easy to forget to keep ourselves safe when it finally does appear. However, the main cause of all types of skin cancer is ultraviolet (UV) light which comes from the sun or tanning beds. The ultraviolet light (UV) damages DNA in skin cells and it can happen years before skin cancer develops.

The main cause of all types of skin cancer is ultraviolet (UV) There are two main types of skin cancer, melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers (NMSC). There are around 72,000 cases of NMSC and 16,000 cases of melanoma in the UK each year.

Anyone can develop skin cancer but you’re particularly at risk if you have fair skin, lots of moles or freckles, red or fair hair, pale coloured eyes or use tanning beds. Similarly, you may be more at risk if you have a family history of skin cancer or have had skin cancer in the past, or take medication which affects your immune system.

86% of skin cancers are preventable, so it’s important to take simple precautions to enjoy the sun safely. Find out more about how to stay safe in the sun.


Alcohol is common in our culture and often associated with good times. However, whether it’s ‘wetting the baby’s head' or celebrating the success of your favourite team, cancer risk increases with every unit of alcohol consumed. Also, drinking alcohol increases the risk of cancer whether it’s drunk all in one go or spread throughout the week.

Alcohol can cause seven different types of cancer. It’s the alcohol itself causing harm, not the type of alcoholic drink you choose. Alcohol increases the risk of mouth cancer, pharyngeal (upper throat) cancer, oesophageal (food pipe) cancer, laryngeal (voice box) cancer, breast cancer, bowel cancer and liver cancer. 

Drinking and smoking together are worse than either one alone, as together they cause more damage to cells throughout the body.

This doesn’t mean everyone who drinks alcohol will develop cancer, but when comparing the whole population, people who drink alcohol are more likely to develop cancer than people who don’t. Alcohol causes 11,900 cases of cancer a year in the UK.

Whatever your level of drinking, cutting down will reduce your risk of developing cancer, as well as helping you to keep a healthy weight. Staying within the government guidelines of 14 units per week is a good place to start. 


There are a few cancers that have been linked to viruses, including the HPV (human papillomavirus). Cancers caused by viruses are small in number, but research is increasing around further immunisations that will target viruses that may trigger genetic faults that cause disease.

The environment around you

As our awareness of cancer has grown, so has our awareness of the occupational risk factors causing cancer. Thankfully there has been a huge cultural change about how we protect people from carcinogens such as many chemicals, radioactive materials and asbestos. Sadly though, there is a generation of people who were not protected from these hazards and it’s only in their later life that the impact of exposure to dangerous substances becomes clear.

Today, factors like air pollution which is caused by fumes from vehicles or factories, or smoke from burning fuels like wood or coal, has been shown to be a cause of cancer. Figures show that almost 1 in 10 lung cancer cases in the UK are caused by exposure to outdoor air pollution. Government and local authorities are working to improve air quality, particularly in major cities.

If you or someone you love has been affected by cancer, our free Support Line is there for you. Just call 0808 808 1010