Large Number of Cancer Deaths Can Be Prevented Through Lifestyle Change

By Emily Menendez - Last Updated: September 9, 2022

An analysis of the most recent Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study (GBD) from 2019 shows that almost half of the global cancer mortality and disability-adjusted life-years (DALYs) were caused by modifiable risk factors. These risk factors can potentially cause the worsening of already diagnosed cancers, or can be the cause of cancer diagnosis, showing that education and aid for patients can be key in helping to reduce cancer deaths.

About 105 million DALYs and 4.45 million cancer deaths—about 44.4% of all cancer deaths and 42% of all cancer DALYs—could be attributed to modifiable risk factors that were noted in the study.

The effects of 34 different behavioral, environmental, and occupational, and metabolic risk factors were found to contribute to mortality and poor health caused by 23 different tumor types.

The main environmental risk factor in both men and women was exposure to tobacco, which was responsible for 36.3% and 12.3% of cancer deaths in men and women. The second most prominent risk factor in men was consumption of alcohol, resulting in 6.9% of deaths, and unsafe sex in women, resulting in 6.5% of deaths. The most common cancers experienced by both men and women due to these risk factors were tracheal, bronchus, and lung cancers, accounting for 42.2% of cancer deaths in men and 27.2% of deaths in women. This was followed by colon and rectum cancer in men, causing 13.3% of deaths, and cervical cancer in women, resulting in 17.9% of deaths.

From 2010 to 2019, risk-attributable cancer deaths were found to have increased by 20.4%, and DALYs increased by 16.8%. “Given the increasing burden of cancer worldwide, this study can help policy makers and researchers identify important modifiable risk factors that could be targeted in efforts to reduce cancer burden globally, regionally, and nationally,” said study investigators.

As the leading cause of preventable death, reducing or stopping the use of tobacco products altogether can save over 7 million lives each year. Another study from the World Health Organization shows that nearly 4% of cancer cases diagnosed worldwide in 2020 alone could be attributed to the consumption of alcohol, and almost all cases of cervical cancer is attributed to unsafe sex.

For cancer patients, the use of tobacco along with other modifiable risks, such as alcohol consumption and safe sex habits, can be discussed with patients to prevent them from engaging in further harmful behaviors that may make a cancer diagnosis worse. As modifiable risk factors, education and guidance throughout a cancer patient’s diagnosis can help them to reduce engagement with these risk factors, or halt engagement altogether.

Study commentators noted that “the overriding message of this research is clear: a substantial proportion of cancers, most likely a majority when infectious diseases are considered, is preventable… the primary prevention of cancer through eradication or mitigation of modifiable risk factors is our best hope of reducing the future burden of cancer.”


Large proportion of global cancer deaths, DALYs attributable to modifiable risk factors