ZEN+ : Helping you Stay Young and Age Well

How preventable is cancer?

By Marcus Santer


So there I was doing my daily rounds of sifting through the Internet looking for interesting, evidenced based information to help you stack the odds of a longer, healthier and happier life in your favour…

When I came across this from cancer research UK:

“1 in 2 people in the UK born after 1960 will be diagnosed with some form of cancer during their lifetime.” [1]

cancer risk

Hold the phone!


That’s not a thought you want to start the day with.

So I went digging.

Because I’m a huge believer in prevention being better than cure – Which is why it’s the most important level of the Healthy Ageing Pyramid.

And seeing as how the genes you inherit from your parents only account for a small number of cancer cases, you must have to the power to increase your odds of avoiding being diagnosed with cancer…

…Of being the 1 out of 2.

So what – realistically – can you do to prevent cancer in the first place?

This was my first stop, an open letter to Joe Biden: “We need a cancer prevention moonshot”. Before I share extracts from it, if you’re like me and have no idea who Joe Biden is or what a ‘moonshot’ is, let me quickly explain.

Joe Biden is the vice president of the United States and he launched an initiative to ‘end cancer’. It aims to bring a decade’s worth of advances in five years and that’s what you call shooting for the moon. [2]

Okay, got that?

Right, here’s an extract from the open letter (August 4th 2016):

“Our continued approach to cancer as a ‘war’ is misguided. Our 40-year-plus tactics have done little to reduce casualties. That’s because of the missing piece of the cancer epidemic puzzle: comprehensive prevention.

It is the foundation of prevention in which our country is, at best, asleep at the wheel; worse: in denial of unconscionable political truths.

From a purely economic standpoint, it costs less to prevent cancer than to cure it. From a purely medical standpoint, it is much easier to prevent cancer than to treat, track, or ‘cure’ it.

…lifelong prevention—not getting cancer in the first place will have the largest impact on numbers: human and economic.

New research shows that up to 85 percent of malignant disease may be prevented through lifestyle choices. Literature to support the core tenets of lifestyle to prevent cancer—physical activity, nutrition, stress reduction, restorative sleep—is clearly beyond refute.”

Glenn Sabin, FON Consulting [3]

Right on!

Now I had to look up what a malignant disease was to make sure I was on the same page as the author.

Here’s good ole Wikipedia:

“…the tendency of a medical condition to become progressively worse. Malignancy is most familiar as a characterisation of cancer.”

Okay, we are on the same page.

Here’s a list of preventable cancers:

So what is the research on just how preventable cancers are by lifestyle choices?

According to the Prevent Cancer Foundation:

“Research suggests that only five percent of cancers are hereditary. That means the non-inherited causes of cancer – the lifestyle choices we make, the foods we eat, and our physical activity levels – have a direct impact on our overall cancer risk.” [4]

So if only 5 percent of cancers are hereditary, the other 95 percent must be avoidable then.

According to Cancer Research UK:

“Preventable Cancers: overall an estimated 42 percent of cancer cases each year in the UK are linked to a combination of 14 major lifestyle and other factors.” [5]


According to the World Health Organisation:

“At least one-third of all cancer cases are preventable. Prevention offers the most cost-effective long-term strategy for the control of cancer.” [6]

So that’s at least 33 percent.

According to an article at Huffington Post [7]

“Some highly placed researchers now believe that 90-95 percent of cancers are preventable with drastic lifestyle changes.”

Here’s a headline from The Daily Mail:

“Cancer ISN’T all in your genes: Up to 90 percent of cases ‘could be wiped out by avoiding triggers caused by our unhealthy lifestyles.’”

And there’s more:

Cancer deaths mostly preventable from USA today


Nine in 10 cancers caused by lifestyle from The Telegraph

So what percentage of cancer is avoidable then?

Who knows, but there’s no doubt the lifestyle choices you make can increase or decrease your likelihood of cancer.

Now during my research I came across a study published in January 2015: Cancer etiology. Variation in cancer risk among tissues can be explained by the number of stem cell divisions.

It suggested cancer was caused by faulty stem cells and was down to “bad luck”…

As you can imagine it caused quite a stir.

But what was missed in the mainstream media was that the study “… was only meant to explain the differences in prevalence among certain cancer types, not assign the cause of cancer development: We definitely did’t say that two-thirds of cancers are due to intrinsic factors. It’s very clear that environmental factors affect cancer incidence.” [8]

In December of the same year cancer researcher Yusuf Hannun of Stony Brook University in New York released a new study [9]. His team found the evidence supported a very different conclusion: “… that intrinsic risk factors contribute only modestly (less than ~10–30% of lifetime risk) to cancer development.”

So the jury’s out as to exactly how preventable cancers are.

And that’s to be expected as this is a very complex subject with many moving parts.

But there’s no doubt that adopting lifestyle habits proven to promote health can help reduce your risk of being the 1 out of 2 people diagnosed with cancer.

And what exactly are the habits proven to promote health?

And I’m sure non of them will come as a surprise to you, here they are:

Sum Up

The jury is out as to exactly how many cancer cases are preventable.

And there’s always going to be an element of bad luck involved when it comes to cancer. Remember, this is life you and I are living and if you think you can control everything, you’re deluding yourself.


… My best current understanding of this subject based on the research is you can significantly stack the odds of living cancer free by adopting those lifestyle habits proven to improve health and by avoiding those habits proven to reduce health.

Prevention is better than cure

And it’s what the ZEN+ project is all about.

This article is the kind of thing I usually only share with my ZEN+ Journal readers. But this subject is simply too important to keep private and I wanted to make it freely available to everyone.

If you found this post useful, why not consider becoming a ZEN+ Journal reader?

Full details available here.


[1] Cancer risk statistics: http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics/risk#heading-Zero
[2] Investing in the National Cancer Moonshot https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/02/01/fact-sheet-investing-national-cancer-moonshot
[3] http://www.modernhcp.com/open-letter-to-joe-biden-we-need-a-cancer-prevention-moonshot/
[4] Preventable Cancers: http://preventcancer.org/learn/preventable-cancers/
[5] The fraction of cancer attributable to lifestyle and environmental factors in the UK in 2010 – http://www.nature.com/bjc/journal/v105/n2s/pdf/bjc2011489a.pdf
[6] Cancer Prevention: http://www.who.int/cancer/prevention/en/
[7] Cancer: A preventable disease is creating a revolution http://www.huffingtonpost.com/deepak-chopra/cancer-information_b_1219678.html
[8] Cancer not just ‘bad luck’ http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/44872/title/Cancer-Not-Just–Bad-Luck-/
[9] Substantial contribution of extrinsic risk factors to cancer development http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v529/n7584/full/nature16166.html
[10] Cancer not just bad luck: http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/44872/title/Cancer-Not-Just–Bad-Luck-/

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