Today is World Cancer Day and the theme is ‘we can, I can’. Dr Rosie Webster, a Senior Public Health Officer at Breast Cancer Now, explains how we are helping people change their behaviour so they can reduce their risk of breast cancer.

Thursday 4 February 2016      Health information blog
How Breast Cancer Now are supporting people in changing their behaviour

As individuals, we can try to make healthier choices to reduce our risk of breast cancer. Being physically active, maintaining a balanced weight, and limiting your intake of alcohol all help to prevent breast cancer. In fact, 40% of breast cancer cases could be prevented just by people making changes to their lifestyle.

Here at Breast Cancer Now, we know that it can be difficult to make those healthier choices - especially when it’s wintery and cold outside, or there’s chocolate in the fridge. That’s why we think it’s important to devote part of our work to support people in making healthier choices, and helping them to change their behaviour. This is just one of the things we can do to reduce the global burden of cancer.

How do you change behaviour?

When deciding how to help people change their behaviour, people often base their ideas on their own experience, or ‘common sense’. As a result, they come up with solutions that might seem like a good idea at the time, but are unlikely to have any impact. So how can we develop solutions to successfully support people in changing their behaviour? The science of behaviour, or ‘behavioural science’, can help.

You wouldn’t develop a drug without first understanding the disease you were trying to treat, and researching what ingredients were needed. The same thing applies when thinking about solutions to help people to change their behaviour. These solutions could be information, advice, support, or even a website or smartphone app.

The first step

The first step in helping people to change their behaviour is understanding the behaviour that you’re trying to change. To do this, you need to think about why someone is behaving the way that they are. Take physical activity, for example. Is someone inactive because they don’t have time? Or because they don’t have anyone to exercise with, and they don’t want to do it alone? Perhaps they don’t understand how a little bit of activity might have a big impact on their health?

Once you understand why someone isn’t doing something, you can create messages, tools, and advice to help them. For example, if someone wasn’t active because they didn’t have anyone to look after the children, providing advice for activities they can do at home, or with the children, might help them to be more active. If someone wasn’t active because they don’t enjoy it, an online tool to find an activity that suits them might help.

How can we use behavioural science?

We can use behavioural science to make sure we consider all the things that might affect someone’s behaviour, and to find appropriate ways to target those things. The best way to find out about what is influencing someone’s behaviour is to ask them. Only when we have this information can we work to create effective information and tools to help people change their behaviour.

Once we have this information and these tools, it’s then important to evaluate them to see if they’re actually working. We do this by asking people about their behaviour before giving them the tools, and again afterwards, to see whether they’ve made any difference. Behavioural science is a continuous process – ever changing and improving.

What are Breast Cancer Now doing to help change behaviour?

At Breast Cancer Now, we think that supporting people in changing their behaviour is one of the best things we can do to help people help themselves to reduce their risk of breast cancer. That’s why we’re using behavioural science to ensure that all the health information we produce, the tools we produce (from smartphone apps to quizzes), and our campaigns and messaging are as good as they can be. We’ll be basing our work in the latest behavioural science, and constantly evaluating it to make sure we’re always improving.

More information

To find out more about behaviour change and what we're doing to support people, use our contact form to get in touch.

Find out more about World Cancer Day

About the author

Author profile Rosie Webster

Dr Rosie Webster is a Senior Public Health Officer in the Public Health and Information Team at Breast Cancer Now.

She has a PhD in Health Psychology, and specialises in digital health and behaviour change.

The Public Health and Information Team work to produce health information for our supporters that is both evidence-based and understandable. They also work on producing tools and resources to help people to reduce their risk of breast cancer and ensure that they’re doing all they can to detect breast cancer early.