By Jenny Hope
Last updated at 2:37 AM on 16th November 2009
Record levels of obesity mean the UK has one of the highest levels of preventable cancers
Almost 80,000 patients diagnosed with cancer each year could have avoided the disease by adopting a healthier lifestyle, figures show.
They reveal that 39 per cent of cases of the 12 major cancers are preventable through better diet, drinking and exercise habits.
Record levels of drinking - which have risen more sharply in the UK than in any other developed country - and obesity mean the UK has one of the highest levels of preventable cancers.
But less than half of people realise that a lack of exercise can cause the disease, and a third are unaware of the dangers of diet or body fat.
The figures from the World Cancer Research Fund show that 78,748 of the 207,000 cancer cases diagnosed annually could be prevented. This includes 19,000 cases of breast cancer and 16,100 of bowel cancer.
But it does not take into account cancer that would be prevented by not smoking - tobacco is to blame in a third of cases.
Bowel cancer can be cut by eating less red and processed meat, while drinking less alcohol would reduce the chances of breast cancer.
Eating more fresh fruit and veg and keeping a healthy weight reduces cancers of the stomach and pancreas.
Professor Martin Wiseman, medical and scientific adviser for WCRF, said: 'These estimates set out in stark terms just how high the stakes are and show what could be achieved through making relatively simple lifestyle changes.
'Many people still think of cancer as a question of fate but this emphasises that people can significantly reduce their risk by eating healthily, being physically active and maintaining a healthy weight.
'When you consider that these estimates do not include the cancers that would be prevented through not smoking, it is clear that cancer is actually a largely preventable disease.'
However, he added that the estimate of 80,000 avoidable cases relies on these healthier habits being followed for much of an adult life, rather than people immediately switching lifestyles.
'Having a healthy lifestyle is by no means a guarantee against cancer,' Professor Wiseman said.
'But if everyone followed our recommendations, it would mean that tens of thousands of cases in the UK would be prevented every year.
'More needs to be done to get the message across because it is only when people are aware of what the science is saying that they are in a position to make their own informed lifestyle choices.'
The figures are based on estimates from 23 scientists contributing to the charity's reports.
Professor Wiseman said they were the 'best estimates' possible given the degrees to which poor diet, drinking, lack of exercise and obesity contributed to cases of cancer.
The WCRF recommends ten ways in which people can reduce their risk of cancer.
But the researchers added that not smoking is the single most important factor for preventing cancer.