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37 000 Australian cancer cases could be prevented

QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute has led an Australian-first study that found about 37 000 Australian cancer cases could be prevented each year.

The ground-breaking research, funded by Cancer Council Australia, showed one in three cancer cases could be prevented through lifestyle change. The study identified 13 risk factors with smoking, UV radiation, body weight, poor diet and alcohol causing about 90 per cent of all preventable cancers.

QIMR Berghofer’s Professor David Whiteman, who led the study, said the risk factors considered in the report had to meet strict conditions. They had to be classified by either the World Health Organisation or the World Cancer Research Fund as a cause of at least one cancer type. The factors had to be modifiable and there had to be reliable data about how many Australians were exposed to the risk factor.

Professor Whiteman said there was sufficient evidence to associate 13 different factors with 24 cancer types, including some cancers with the highest mortality.

“In addition to common lifestyle risk factors, we analysed the contributions of lesser-known risk factors that cause cancer such as hepatitis B and C, human papillomavirus, HIV and Epstein Barr virus,” Professor Whiteman said.

“We hope this study will help guide lifestyle change and health policy in Australia, and contribute to the international evidence on cancer prevention.”

The first ever comprehensive analysis of cancer incidence and preventable causes in Australia also found 7000 new cancer cases a year are also attributable to low fruit and vegetable intake, low fibre intake and eating excess red meat.


Researchers estimated the population attributable fraction (PAF)* of cancers associated with exposure to 13 established causal factors using standard formulae incorporating exposure prevalence (how much people consume or are exposed to) and relative risk data (the extent to which that factor is linked to or causes certain cancers). They also calculated the potential impact of changing exposure to some factors.

*The PAF estimates the proportion of cancers in the population that can be attributed to a specific risk factor. e.g. an estimated 81% of all lung cancers can be attributed to the fact that people smoke.

Key findings

  • A total of 32% of all cancers diagnosed in Australia (excluding non-melanoma cancers) were attributed to the 13 cancer risk factors assessed
  • This translates to up to 37,000 cancers (or one third of all cancers) being preventable each year in Australia**
  • 33% of cancers in men and 31% in women are estimated to be preventable.
  • 9 in 10 preventable cancers are caused by just six risk factors: smoking, UV radiation, poor diet, overweight, physical inactivity and alcohol.

**this is fewer than the total for each risk factor below because some cancers may be attributed to more than one risk factor, e.g. All (100%) cervical cancers are attributable to HPV infection but some can also be attributed to the fact that women smoked and/or used the oral contraceptive pill.

To view the cancer risk tables, open the PDF of this media release.