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Researchers cite smoking and obesity as top causes of cancer in UK

Around 135,000 cases of cancer in the UK could be prevented every year through lifestyle changes, the study claims.

Around 135,000 cases of cancer in the UK could be prevented every year through lifestyle changes, a new study claims.


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Researchers from Cancer Research UK say smoking and obesity are the most common causes of all types of cancer; they recommend that reducing both should be a priority for the NHS.

The study examined the number of cancer cases in the four UK countries that were diagnosed in 2015. The researchers then used a calculation using population attributes to determine the most statistically likely causes of the cancers.

The data show that four in 10 cases of the disease could have been prevented through simple lifestyle changes.

Writing in the British Journal of Cancer, the research team said almost 54,300 (15.1%) of the 359,547 UK cases were linked to smoking, while being overweight or obese was linked to 22,650 cases (6.3%).

Ultraviolet radiation from the sun, people’s jobs, infections and alcohol were the next highest risk factors.

How to reduce cancer risk

Cancer Research UK's health information officer Sophia Lowes lists steps people could take to reduce their cancer risk:

  • Stopping smoking
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Enjoying the sun safely
  • Avoiding certain substances at work, such as asbestos
  • Protecting against certain infections, such as human papilloma virus
  • Cutting back on alcohol

In her blog for Cancer Research UK, Ms Lowes says: ‘This research can’t tell us what caused an individual person’s cancer – it’s almost impossible to say that for sure.

‘It is about providing clear information on where the different causes of cancer rank against one another, to encourage people to consider making positive changes, and highlight where the government can focus its efforts to prevent more cases of cancer.'

Drilling down into the data

Lead study report author Katrina Brown said: ‘This research looked at the impact of these risk factors on a population level, rather than the effect they would have for an individual person.

‘But it can give us an indication of the relative importance of the risk factors for individuals.

‘This is because it considers how much the factor increases individual risk, how many cancer types are affected, and whether those are common cancer types.’

Action on Smoking and Health chief executive Deborah Arnott called for immediate funding in the wake of the study: ‘If we are serious about preventing cancer, smoking remains the number one priority.

‘It is shocking that against this backdrop, smoking cessation services continue to be among the hardest hit by funding cuts. The NHS is not doing anywhere near enough to help smokers quit.’

Further information


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