What we know about preventing cancer

World Cancer Research Fund UK’s advice is based on the evaluation of thousands of studies into cancer and lifestyle, not just one single study - so the public and health professionals can be confident in our guidance

Cancer is a disease of cells. Their lives and behaviour are controlled by genetic instructions that tell the cells when and how to grow, reproduce and die. If those instructions get garbled, a cell might start reproducing and multiplying in an uncontrolled way. When that happens, we call it cancer. 

Although our bodies have natural defences that protect us from these mutated cells, sometimes they make it past the ‘guards’ and multiply, which is when they can pose a threat to us.

Cancer is a complex disease, and no single factor is likely to be the cause, nor can a single piece of research give us all the answers. Many things contribute to cancer development, but we now know that a significant number of cancers are caused by lifestyle factors like poor diet and excess weight.

We analyse a vast body of scientific evidence and translate it into cancer prevention advice, which gives people the information they need to help protect themselves.

Our advice is based on many studies and should be considered as a whole.

The types of studies we analyse are varied and include:

  • Epidemiological studies – observation of groups over a period of time and specific characteristics are related to their cancer risk
  • Laboratory studies – test subjects have small changes made to them and the outcomes are compared
  • Controlled trials – specific changes are made to participants and the effects are studied.

We then piece together the evidence using meta-analysis – which uses statistical methods to detect links – and by using a portfolio approach, which allows us to build a comprehensive overview.

Our Continuous Update Project plays a critical role in ensuring that we access the latest available research. It is a central resource that is consistently updated with the evidence related to weight, nutrition, physical activity and cancer from studies taking place around the world.

Our Expert Reports, compiled in 1997 and 2007, gave definitive recommendations on the links between lifestyle and cancer risk developed by an expert panel of world-renowned scientists.

These recommendations include maintaining a healthy weight, limiting your intake of processed foods, eating a nutritious, plant-based diet and being physically active.

We are committed to communicating the latest research findings and learning more about cancer prevention to help greater numbers of people lead happy, healthy, cancer-free lives.