Cancer Prevention Guidelines

What are the most common types of cancer? Is there anything we can do to reduce the risk – or enable earlier detection, so treatment can start earlier?

What are the most common types of cancer?

In the UK the four most common types are breast, bowel (colon), lung and prostate cancer.

Genes, Ageing or Lifestyle?

Cancers can be caused by inherited faulty genes. This causes an estimated two or three in every 100 cancers diagnosed.

However, it is much more common for cancers to be due to gene changes caused by factors such as ageing, environment and lifestyle.

Lifestyle is something we can control and is believed to account for around a third of cancer cases. For example a Dutch study published in 2014 estimated that 30% of newly diagnosed cases of cancer in adults in the Netherlands were due to lifestyle risk factors – and 38% of cancer deaths.

  • Exercise reduces the risk of cancer and also helps recovery and survival rates among cancer patients.
  • A Mediterranean Diet (with plenty of vegetables, fruit, cereals, beans, nuts, seeds and olive oil) also seems to reduce the risk of cancer. Different studies show differing levels of reduced risk, from less than 5% to more than 10%.
  • Limiting alcohol consumption can also reduce the risk of a number of cancers, according to a US study published in 2013.
  • Not smoking is also important. That’s because smoking is the single biggest cause of cancer, according to Cancer Research UK. It causes almost one in five cancer cases in the UK and more than a quarter of all cancer deaths.
  • Maintaining a healthy body weight helps too. That’s according to a 2013 US review, which referred to, ‘data showing reduced cancer incidence and mortality among individuals who lose weight and maintain the loss.’ 

If we look at some of the more common cancers in more detail:

Breast Cancer

This is the most common type of cancer in women. The risk can be reduced by maintaining a healthy weight, taking exercise, not drinking too much alcohol and not smoking (i.e. most of the helpful lifestyle choices described earlier) – and also by avoiding long term use of HRT and oral contraceptives.

Bowel Cancer (Colorectal cancer)

Avoid eating too much red meat and processed meat. Instead eat plenty of dietary fibre, particularly cereal and whole grains. That’s what research suggests can reduce the risk of bowel cancer.

Lung Cancer

Around 85 per cent of cases occur in people who smoke or used to smoke - and the risk increases the more cigarettes you have smoked. There’s also a risk if you breathe in other people’s cigarette smoke over a long period of time (passive smoking).

So you can significantly reduce the risk of lung cancer by not smoking. The NHS provides information and resources if you want to stop. 

E-cigarettes are more controversial. Public Health England reports that E-Cigarettes are 95% less harmful for health than ordinary cigarettes – although this figure has been questioned by some.

Prostate Cancer

This is the most common cancer in men in the UK.

Research hasn’t yet established clearly what we can do to reduce the risk. However some research suggests that safe sexual activity, in particular frequent ejaculation, can reduce the risk – although unfortunately not for the more serious types of prostate cancer.

The pros and cons of screening

In principle screening can enable early detection, early treatment and a better chance of survival.

However, some cancers are more of a risk than others. In part this is because some cancers grow more quickly than others – and tumour grade is one possible indicator of this. Sometimes cancer spontaneously goes into remission. And screening isn’t always an exact science. So people can also end up being treated unnecessarily, with possible harmful side effects.

This helps explain the continuing controversy as to the value of mass screening for breast cancer. It also explains why some doctors are rethinking the effectiveness of PSA tests for prostate cancer.

However, where you are in a high risk category, for instance where close members of your family have had this kind of cancer before the age of 40, then discuss screening with your doctor - as recommended in the guidance on Breast Cancer in Families from Breast Cancer Care.


  • Breast, bowel, prostate and lung cancer are the most common cancers in the UK.
  • A healthy lifestyle can reduce the risk of cancer by up to a third.
  • Exercise, a healthy weight, a healthy diet and limited alcohol consumption all help. Not smoking is particularly important, especially for lung cancer.
  • In addition avoiding long term use of HRT and oral contraceptives also helps reduce the risk of breast cancer; frequent safe sex ejaculation may reduce the risk of prostate cancer; and less red and processed meat and more dietary fibre reduces the risk of bowel cancer.
  • Mass screening has become more controversial.
  • However if you are in a high risk group then discuss screening with your doctor if you haven’t already done so.

Reviewed and updated by Christiane Hahn and Michael Baber, August 2015. Next review date, August 2019.

Cancer Prevention

Breast Self Examination Guide

Lifestyle and Cancer I

Reducing your risk

Lifestyle and Cancer II

Cancer Risk Calculator

Cancer Prevention- Nutrition and Physical Activity

Cancer Fighting Foods