By Dr Bilal Shirazi | 03 Feb 2021

How to Reduce Your Risk of Developing Cancer

Ahead of World Cancer Day on February 4th, we explore why cancer is so common and how you can reduce your risk of developing various forms of the disease.


Cancer is a disease that will affect most of us during our lifetime. Such is the prevalence of cancer that if we don't develop cancer ourselves, a close relative or friend will likely be diagnosed with cancer during their lives.

Ahead of World Cancer Day on February 4th, let’s look at why cancer continues to be so widespread and at how you can reduce your risk of developing a variety of cancers.

How common is cancer?

Different countries report different figures, so it's tough to get an accurate picture of how common cancer is. For example, the United States’ National Cancer Institute estimates 39.5% of adults will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetimes. In the United Kingdom, the charity Cancer Research UK puts that figure at 50%.

Cancer Research UK also reports global figures and says there are 17 million cancer diagnoses worldwide every year, and over 9.6 million cancer deaths. Sadly, this number is likely to increase in the short-term. The Covid-19 pandemic has seen many healthcare providers in many countries postpone or cancel treatment for cancer and other conditions. This will inevitably lead to more cancer deaths and is often called the "hidden toll" of the pandemic.

Notably, Cancer Research UK projects that by 2040, there will be 27.5 million new cancer diagnoses per year, which would be a significant growth in cases. If these numbers occur, medical resources worldwide will come under immense pressure, particularly as many cancer patients live with manageable conditions and require long-term treatment.

There are several reasons why cancer is becoming more prevalent. Among them:

  • In general, the global population is getting better at surviving other conditions. Treatments for heart attacks, strokes, and other conditions that were often fatal in the past are continuing to advance. As such, patients with these medical emergencies have a far better prognosis.
  • In connection with the above point, more of us live for longer, and age is the most significant uncontrollable risk factor associated with cancer.
  • As well as getting better at treating cancer, we've also advanced massively in terms of diagnosing cancers at an earlier stage. Better medical technology aligned to increased public awareness means more cancers are diagnosed at an early stage than ever before.

Reducing your risk of developing cancer

Although genetics and age are key risk factors for cancer, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that between 30% - 50% of cancer cases and deaths are preventable by awareness and management of controllable risk factors.

Let’s explore five of the critical controllable risk factors, the underlying statistics that highlight how they drive cancer diagnoses worldwide, and what you can do to mitigate them.

1.     Quit smoking

Smoking is linked to increased risk of developing at least 15 cancer types, and is also linked to:

  • 33% of all global cancer diagnoses
  • At least 22% of all cancer deaths
  • A staggering 71% of lung cancer deaths

Lung cancer is the most prevalent and biggest killer of all cancers, claiming around 1.8 million lives per year. If there were no such thing as smoking, potentially well over a million lives a year would be saved, along with vast sums of money on healthcare and treatment. While the number of smokers is falling in many countries, there are still over 1 BILLION smokers worldwide.

It's never too late to stop smoking, while you should also do your best to avoid passive smoking as much as possible.

2.     Reduce your alcohol consumption

Excessive alcohol consumption is linked to an increased risk of developing several cancers, including mouth, oesophagus, and breast cancer. Although excessive alcohol consumption is not directly related to an increased risk of liver cancer, we know that it can lead to liver cirrhosis. In turn, cirrhosis itself can increase your risk of developing liver cancer due to the increased presence of scar tissue on your liver.

You don't need to give up alcohol altogether. However, you should review your consumption and reduce it if it's excessive.

3.     Increase your physical activity and lose excess weight

At least ten cancers, including bowel, breast, ovarian, and pancreatic, have been linked to being overweight or leading a sedentary lifestyle. As well as preventing you from developing cancer, regular exercise and maintaining a healthy weight can help manage existing cancers that patients can live with for the long-term, such as prostate cancer.

4.     Reduce your exposure to ultraviolet radiation

The World Cancer Research Fund reports there are over one million diagnoses of skin cancer per year but admits this is likely an underestimate. It’s also likely that many more cases are undiagnosed due to people not noticing changes in moles or believing they should get checked out.

Many people don't realise the effect that ultraviolet (UV) radiation can have on our skin. Many others aren’t aware of how much UV radiation reaches us even on days with heavy cloud cover.

To reduce your exposure to UV radiation and reduce your skin cancer risk, you should:

  • Avoid the use of sun and tanning beds
  • Stay in the shade as much as possible
  • Keep your body covered up as much as you can
  • Limit your exposure to the sun in the middle of the day, when UV rays are their strongest
  • Use a high SPF sun lotion on your face and other areas of exposed skin, even on cloudy days

5.     Get whatever vaccinations you can

It is estimated that preventable infections cause around 16% of all cancers worldwide. Hepatitis B and human papillomavirus have been closely linked to increased risk of cervical, liver, and stomach cancers.

If you live in a location where vaccines against these viruses are available, or you’re otherwise able to access them, get them! By reducing your risk of catching these viruses, you also reduce your risk of developing cancer.

When you deal with these risk factors, you reduce your risk of developing other conditions, too!

By acting now to mitigate these risk factors, not only do you reduce your risk of developing a variety of cancers. You'll also improve your heart health and lifestyle and health overall! This may also have knock-on positive effects. For example, you will improve your mental health and mobility, and even save you money on health and life insurance products if you quit smoking, not to mention how much you'll save by not buying cigarettes!


By Dr Bilal Shirazi

Dr. Bilal has more than 17 years of experience working across clinical medicine and the health insurance sector, with particular expertise in health insurance administration and operations. In addition to his Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery degree (MBBS), he has an MBA and is an Associate Member of the Life Office Management Association (LOMA).  

See Dr Bilal Shirazi's profile