While there are some things we can’t change when it comes to cancer — like certain genes we inherit — up to half of all cancers are preventable. This means that the lifestyle choices we make early in life can have a big impact on our risk of developing cancer later in life.

Here are some of the most important lifestyle changes you can make now to lower your cancer risk.


This article is part of Quarter Life, a series about the issues that affect us in our twenties and thirties. From the challenges of starting a career and looking after our mental health, to the excitement of starting a family, adopting a pet or just making friends as an adult. The articles in this series explore questions and provide answers as we navigate this tumultuous period of life.

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1. Do not smoke

Smoking is not only the leading cause of lung cancer each year, but is also linked to 14 other cancers, including mouth and throat cancer.

While younger people are smoking less these days, thanks in part to the popularity of vaping, research still shows that nine out of 10 regular smokers start by the age of 25. If you want to significantly reduce your risk of many types of cancer, don’t smoke – or quit if you smoke.

Although vaping is certainly less harmful than smoking, its long-term effects have yet to be studied. For this reason, Cancer Research UK recommends using e-cigarettes only to quit smoking. The effect of cannabis smoking on cancer risk is also not well known, although there is some evidence of a small association between cannabis use and an increased risk of testicular cancer. Until more research is done, it may be best to avoid both.

2. Practice safe sex

HPV (human papillomavirus), which causes genital warts, is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the world. It can also cause a number of cancers – including cervical, penile, oral and throat cancers.

HPV-related cancers are particularly common in young adults. In the UK alone, cervical cancer is most commonly diagnosed in women aged 30-34. It is also thought that the rise in HPV may explain the recent surge in oral cancer in young men.

HPV vaccination and safe sex will protect you from contracting the virus. Cervical screening (a Pap smear) is also important for women, which can detect HPV infection before it has a chance to cause cancer. Therefore, women between the ages of 25 and 64 should be screened regularly every five years.

3. Maintain a healthy weight

Being overweight or obese has been linked to an increased risk of 13 different types of cancer, including bowel, breast, uterine and pancreatic. Excess fat leads to inflammation in the body, which promotes tumor growth and helps cancer cells divide. Fat cells also produce the hormone estrogen, which can stimulate the growth of tumors in the breast and uterus. For this reason, the increased risk of cancer is more pronounced in women. Cancers associated with being overweight or obese are becoming more common, especially among young people.

Reduce your risk of preventable cancer, here's what you should do in your 20s and 30s
Avoid processed foods as much as possible.
Pixel-Shot/ Shutterstock

Not only that, poor nutrition itself can also contribute to an increased risk of cancer. For example, eating too much red and processed meat has been linked to an increased chance of developing bowel cancer. On the other hand, there is growing evidence that eating a healthy, balanced diet that includes fiber and a variety of fruits and vegetables actually reduces the risk of several different types of cancer.

Eating right and trying to maintain a healthy weight can be great ways to reduce your risk of developing various cancers later in life.

4. Drink less

Alcohol is well known to increase the risk of developing several types of cancer, including liver, breast, and esophageal cancers. Although the more you drink, the greater the risk, it is also estimated that even moderate alcohol consumption contributes 100,000 cases to the annual global burden of cancer. Although the effects of heavy drinking are poorly studied, one study shows that moderate and regular drinkers are 50% more likely to develop breast cancer. Smoking while drinking can also increase the cancer-causing effects of smoking.

Reducing the amount of alcohol you drink – or not drinking at all – will help reduce your risk of developing cancer. The NHS recommends that you drink no more than 14 units of alcohol a week (about 6 pints or 10 small glasses of wine) and that you aim to abstain for a few days each week.

5. Wear sunscreen

Skin cancer is one of the most common types of cancer diagnosed before the age of 40. It has also become more common over the past few decades.

The main cause of skin cancer is ultraviolet radiation – either from the sun or tanning beds. Because UV exposure is cumulative, the areas of skin most exposed to the sun (such as the face) are most likely to develop skin cancer. In addition to these cumulative effects, severe sunburn at a young age can specifically increase the risk of developing the most dangerous form of skin cancer.

You can protect yourself from skin cancer by using sunscreen whenever you are out in the intense sun. This includes wearing hats, covering up with long clothing, and applying sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15, bearing in mind that no sunscreen provides 100% protection. This is especially important for people who are at increased risk of skin cancer, such as those with fair skin and a tendency to freckles.

The best ways to reduce the risk of many cancers are also related to improving overall health. Other ways to improve your overall health and fitness while protecting against cancer include being physically active and avoiding air pollution.Reduce your risk of preventable cancer, here's what you should do in your 20s and 30s

Sarah Allinson, Senior Lecturer, University of Lancaster

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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