Lifestyle changes could prevent almost a third of cancers in Ireland - report

Smoking, overweight and obesity, and infections were top three modifiable risk factors

Three out of every 10 cancers in Ireland are potentially preventable through lifestyle changes, according to a new report.

About 6,200 cancer diagnoses a year are attributable to 11 "modifiable" risk factors, the report from the National Cancer Registry says.

Smoking, overweight and obesity, and infections were the top three modifiable risk factors for cancer in Ireland, together accounting for about 21 per cent of all cancers. The report calls on public health representatives and policymakers to continue targeting these factors.

About one-eighth of cancer cases, or 2,800 diagnoses, were attributable to smoking, including passive smoking, the report says. By 2035, it is estimated that about 4,700 cases of invasive cancer per year will be attributable to smoking.


Lung cancer had the highest number of cases attributable to modifiable risk factors in both males and females, followed by colon cancer in males and breast cancer in females.

Over a 10-year period ending in 2035, it is estimated that a cumulative total of 66,000 cancer cases (2026-2035) will be attributable to three of those factors alone — smoking, overweight and obesity, and alcohol consumption.

This is the first analysis by the National Cancer Registry of the proportion of cancer cases attributable to modifiable risk factors.

The report says the figure of 29 per cent of cancers being potentially preventable is an underestimate, as risk associated with a person’s occupation was not taken into account. In the UK, 4 per cent of cancers are attributable to this form of risk.

“Additionally, everyday exposure to ultra-violet radiation was not included, only sunburn history and sunbed usage, while some additional cancers, with less conclusive evidence on risk factors, may also be preventable.”

“These figures could translate into tens thousands of cancer cases over the coming years and decades, depending on the timelines involved and how successful cancer prevention strategies and interventions are meantime,” said lead author of the report, Dr Colette O’Neill.

Risk factors examined were: smoking, infection, being overweight or obese, alcohol consumption, sunburn and sunbed history, radiation, processed meat consumption, hormonal replacement therapy, oral contraceptive use, physical inactivity, and fine particulate air pollution.

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times