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Knowledge Centre on Cancer

We foster scientific and technical coordination of EU activities on cancer, while expanding the EU’s capacities and systems for prevention, early detection, treatment and care.

Page | 24 Jun 2024

Cancer prevention

Targeted health promotion measures can considerably reduce cancer risk.

It is estimated that over 40% of cancers could be prevented through healthierful diets, physical activity, smoking cessation, reducing alcohol consumption and reduced exposure to environmental pollution.


Risk factors for cancer

Diet, insufficient physical activity, smoking, and alcohol consumption.

Certain risk factors may increase a person’s risk of developing cancer. These include exposure to carcinogenic substances, as well as certain behaviours. On the other hand, there are also some protective factors including some nutrients as well as healthy behaviours.

The factors related to cancer risk can be divided in modifiable and non modifiable factors. Age or family history can are related to the risks of developing cancer and cannot be modified.

Some of the most-studied modifiable factors related to cancer risk include:

  • alcohol consumption,
  • diet/nutrition,
  • specific chemicals,
  • carcinogenic infections (i.e. Helicobacter pylori, hepatitis B virus (HBV), hepatitis C virus (HCV), human papillomavirus (HPV)),
  • body weight ,
  • environmental pollution,
  • physical activity,
  • exposure to radiation, including from the sun,
  • tobacco and smoking.

The Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Knowledge Gateway provides reliable and up-to-date information on the health effects of such modifiable risk factors, i.e. smoking, alcohol consumption, different nutrition aspects (for example whole grain, or fruit and vegetables) and Physical activity and sedentary behaviour, as well as the recommended policies to tackle the modifiable risk factors and promote healthier behaviours.


Measures for primary prevention of cancer

Evidence-based policies and best practices for the primary prevention of cancer.

Modifiable factors and prevention

Different modifiable factors may increase or decrease the risk for developing cancer. It is therefore important that primary prevention efforts address the whole breadth of factors, aiming to establish cancer-protective behaviours from a young age.

At an EU level, prevention is one of the key action areas of the Europe's Beating Cancer Plan that will address tobacco, harmful alcohol consumption, environmental pollution and hazardous substances. A ‘HealthyLifestyle4All' campaign will promote healthy diets and physical activity. To prevent cancers caused by infections, the Cancer Plan aims to vaccinate at least 90% of the EU target population of girls and to significantly increase vaccination coverage rates of boys by 2030. There are several existing measures addressing tobacco, alcohol consumption   and diet-related aspects; some of them will be reviewed as part of the Cancer Plan.

Several countries have implemented effective interventions addressing such factors, including nutrition, physical activity, reducing alcohol consumption and alcohol-related harm, reducing the use of tobacco products, improving the environmental determinants of health, or reducing overweight and obesity. A selection of such best practices can be found at the Best Practice Portal that is designed to help to find reliable and practical information on implemented practices recognised as the best in the area of health promotion, disease prevention, and the management of non-communicable diseases, such as cancer.

Additional policies and guidelines

Additional policies – either recommended by national and/or international authorities, or already implemented – can be found at the Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Knowledge Gateway for most modifiable cancer risk factors, i.e. tobacco and smoking, Alcoholic beverages / alcohol consumption  , different diet-related aspects (for example Whole grain  , or Fruit and vegetables ) and Physical activity and sedentary behaviour .

Furthermore, national health authorities regularly issue guidelines to support the adoption of healthy diets or healthy lifestyles. One such example is the development of Food Based Dietary Guidelines for consumer information, which often also incorporate guidance on alcohol use or physical activity.


Science for policy towards cancer prevention

Knowledge and science in support of cancer prevention.

Encouraging and promoting healthy lifestyles is key for the successful prevention of non-communicable disease, including cancer. Access to healthy diets and physical activity from an early age can help create health-promoting habits and behaviours that track into adulthood.

The JRC has produced a variety of tools, from reviews of the scientific literature to practical toolkits, that policy-makers can use to design and implement effective interventions. These tools address several of the most important modifiable risk factors such as Tobacco and smoking   , alcohol consumption , several diet-related aspects, physical activity and obesity.


Evidence-based recommendations for the prevention of cancer

Explore the recommendations for cancer prevention from other organisations.

European Code Against Cancer

The European Code Against Cancer (ECAC) is an initiative of the European Commission and the result of a project coordinated by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. The code aims to inform people about actions they can take to reduce their risk of cancer and relate to: tobacco, second-hand smoke, healthy body weight, physical activity, diet, alcohol consumption, sun/UV exposure, environmental pollutants, radiation, breastfeeding and hormonal therapy, infections and vaccination, and screening. The code is based on  scientific evidence on cancer prevention.

Evidence-based recommendations image


WCRF cancer prevention recommendations

The World Cancer Research Fund's (WCRF) Cancer Prevention Recommendations  were designed to help people to reduce their risk of developing cancer and to help form policies that reduce the incidence of cancer. The recommendations are based on the latest science available derived from the Third Expert Report from World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute of Cancer Research (WCRF/AICR) Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer: a Global Perspective , including only  evidence that showed strong links between a risk factor and cancer .

The 10 Recommendations are on healthy body weight  , physical activity , maintaining healthy diet  , limiting fast foods , red and processed meat  , sugary drinks   and alcohol consumption  , supplements use  , breastfeeding , and life after cancer diagnosis   


What's next?

The Joint Research Center (JRC) is strongly engaged in cancer matters and deploys cross-cutting science and technology for cancer prevention.

Ongoing and future challenges