Higher number of bowel and breast cancer cases can be prevented through lifestyle changes

The latest UK-wide estimates find simple adjustments can reduce cancer risk.

25 March 2021

Latest preventability estimates drawn from across the UK population have highlighted that two of the most common forms of cancer, colorectal and breast, are more preventable than previous research studies have shown1. The research, funded by World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) and released to coincide with Cancer Prevention Awareness Week (20–26 March), finds that 67 per cent of UK colorectal cancer cases in men and 60 per cent of colorectal cancer cases in women are preventable due to lifestyle factors. It also finds that lifestyle factors are responsible for 27 per cent of breast cancer cases in women.

The evidence has found that insufficient intake of dietary fibre is the highest lifestyle risk factor for colorectal cancer cases, responsible for 24.9 per cent of male and 31.8 per cent of female cases each year (equivalent to 5,972 men and 6,187 women, respectively2. This is followed by processed meat consumption being linked to 14.5 per cent of male and 10 per cent of female cancer cases, equivalent to 3,478 men and 1,946 women each year.

With breast cancer, alcohol consumption is the highest risk factor in females (8.2 per cent or 4,487 cases a year), followed by a high body mass index (7.6 per cent or 4,159 cases) and low levels of physical activity (7.5 per cent or 4,104 cases).

recent YouGov poll, commissioned by WCRF to understand the nation’s current health habits, found that only 33 per cent of men and 41 per cent of women in the UK eat foods that are high in fibre on a daily basis. It also found that 28 per cent of women admitted to drinking more alcohol over the last year, since the coronavirus pandemic took hold.

WCRF’s Prevention Pledge

Throughout Cancer Prevention Awareness Week, WCRF aims to highlight how people can take practical steps to help reduce the risk of cancer. As part of this, the charity is calling on adults in the UK to sign up to its ‘Prevention Pledge’.

Rachael Gormley, CEO of WCRF in the UK, said:

These new UK figures give a clear indication of the simple lifestyle changes we can all make to decrease our likelihood of a cancer diagnosis. With the coronavirus pandemic continuing to have an impact on people’s outcomes and experience of cancer care, knowing how to reduce your risk has never been more vital. During Cancer Prevention Awareness Week, we urge everyone to sign our Prevention Pledge and make cancer prevention part of everyday life.

Ed Giovannucci, study author and Professor of Nutrition and Epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, said:

For both colorectal and breast cancer, as well as many other forms of cancer, it is important to note that the more risk factors that are addressed, the greater the impact will be on an individual’s overall risk. The risk factors also work together; for example, improving diet and increasing physical activity will help with body weight control. All are important.

More information about Cancer Prevention Awareness Week can be found at: https://www.wcrf-uk.org/cpaw.

WCRF’s Cancer Prevention Recommendations are based on the latest scientific research, with over 40 independent studies showing that the more closely people follow the package of Recommendations, the lower the risk of developing cancer.


For more information and media enquiries contact Laura Burnell, Head of Content and Campaigns at WCRF, on l.burnell@wcrf.org.




Notes to editors

Findings from the UK population study, published on the AMRC Open Research Platform, are available on request from the WCRF press office. The study is a follow-up to Prof Giovannucci’s US-focused study (International Journal of Cancer, DoI 10.1002/ijc.33489) which seeks to understand better how changes in population-level exposure to eight modifiable risk factors is key to reducing cancer incidence.

Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in the UK. About 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime. In rare cases, men can also be diagnosed with breast cancer.

Colorectal (also known as bowel cancer) is the fourth most common cancer in the UK, with the second highest mortality rate.

The YouGov poll was conducted between 11–12 February 2021, with 2,116 adults surveyed.

Sources of processed meat include sausages, bacon and ham; foods that are high in fibre include wholegrain bread and oats, lentils, beans and broccoli.

About World Cancer Research Fund

WCRF is the UK’s only charity solely dedicated to cancer prevention and survival. Over the last 30 years, WCRF has worked tirelessly to understand the links between a person’s weight, diet, and physical activity levels and their cancer risk.

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