Preventing cancer - The European code against cancer

Cancer incidence is rising in the WHO European Region - the total number of new cancer cases diagnosed in 2012 was 3.7 million, and the number is estimated to increase by 25% by 2030, to reach 4.6 million (1).

This increase is the result of both an ageing population and other factors, such as tobacco and alcohol use, unhealthy diets, physical inactivity, increasing overweight and obesity, exposure to occupational and environmental carcinogens (e.g. asbestos, benzene, air pollution, ultraviolet radiation and environmental radon) and some infectious agents (e.g. hepatitis B virus, Helicobacter pylori and human papilloma virus).

Every year, on 4 February, WHO promotes ways to ease the global burden of cancer. Under the tagline "We can. I can.", World Cancer Day 2016 will show how everyone – collectively and as individuals – can do their part in reducing the global burden of cancer.

12 ways to reduce your risk for cancer 

WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has issued a new edition of a code of actions that individuals can take to help prevent cancer. Supported by government policy and action, the code can help reduce cancer in the Region.

The code lists 12 ways of helping people to adopt healthier lifestyles and of boosting cancer prevention. It is estimated that almost half of all deaths due to cancer in Europe could be avoided if everyone followed the recommendations. 

  1. Do not smoke. Do not use any form of tobacco.
  2. Make your home smoke free. Support smoke-free policies in your workplace.
  3. Take action to have a healthy body weight.
  4. Be physically active in everyday life. Limit the time you spend sitting.
  5. Have a healthy diet:
    • Eat plenty of whole grains, pulses, vegetables and fruits.
    • Limit high-calorie foods (foods high in sugar or fat), and avoid sugary drinks.
    • Avoid processed meat; limit red meat and foods high in salt.
  6. If you drink alcohol of any type, limit your intake. Not drinking alcohol can prevent cancer.
  7. Avoid too much sun, especially for children. Use sun protection. Do not use sunbeds.
  8. In the workplace, protect yourself against cancer-causing substances by following health and safety instructions.
  9. Find out if you are exposed to radiation from naturally high radon levels in your home. Take action to reduce high radon levels.
  10. For women:
    • If you can, breastfeed your baby. Breastfeeding reduces the mother's cancer risk. 
    • Limit use of hormone replacement therapy, which increases the risks for certain cancers.
  11. Ensure that your children are vaccinated against:
    • Hepatitis B (for newborns)
    • Human papillomavirus (for girls)
  12. Take part in organized cancer screening programmes for:
    • Bowel cancer (men and women)
    • Breast cancer (women)
    • Cervical cancer (women)

The European code against cancer was prepared by cancer specialists, scientists and other experts to increase the awareness of European citizens about efficient ways to prevent cancer. The first edition of the code was published in 1987. The scientific work that informed the 4th edition has just been published. 

WHO policies to support change

WHO/Europe assists countries in Europe to enable and promote healthy behaviour among their citizens. In the past few years, WHO/Europe has issued several action plans to help countries address cancer risk factors effectively. 

  • A "tobacco roadmap" has been drawn up to assist countries in implementing the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. 
  • To decrease alcohol consumption, WHO/Europe is helping countries to implement 10 practical measures proven to be effective (such as tax increases on alcohol and banning alcohol advertising). 
  • The European Food and Nutrition Action Plan 2015–2020 includes policies for improving the availability and affordability of healthier foods and helping consumers to make healthier choices, such as school food standards, reformulation to improve the nutritional content of foods and easy-to-use nutrition labels. 
  • The Physical Activity Strategy for the WHO European Region 2016–2025 identifies ways in which governments can help ensure that physical activity is part of everyday life, such as by setting aside cycle paths and safe public areas for recreation and active play.

(1) Ferlay J, Soerjomataram I, Ervik M, Dikshit R, Eser S, Mathers C, et al. GLOBOCAN 2012 v1.0, Cancer incidence and mortality worldwide: IARC CancerBase No. 11 [Internet]. Lyon: International Agency for Research on Cancer; 2013 (, accessed 22 January 2016).