In 2015, cancer took the lives of 8.8 million people, making it the leading cause of death worldwide1. The theme for World Cancer Day 2018 is ‘We can. I can.’  and explores how we can all – as a collective or as individuals – do our part and take concrete actions to reduce the global burden of cancer2. It is estimated that 30–50% of cancers could be prevented by avoiding risk factors. The most effective preventative actions include eating better, moving more and not smoking.  However, many people are unaware of a number of factors associated with increased cancer risk, including:3,4

·      Relying on dietary supplements rather than achieving nutritional adequacy through diet.

·      Not being vaccinated against HPV and Hepatitis-B – this could prevent 1 million cancer cases a year.

·      Not breast-feeding: it is recommended that women breast-feed for as long as possible and ideally up to 6 months after giving birth. Not breast-feeding can increase the risk of breast cancer, the leading cause of cancer in women.

·      Drinking alcohol – one alcoholic drink a day increases the risk of breast, mouth and throat and oesophageal cancer. Two or more increases the risk of colorectal, while three or more increases the risk of liver and stomach cancer.

Other ways the cancer burden can be reduced is through early detection and improved treatment. This not only makes the chance of a cure much higher, but also reduces the risk of recurrence and reduces healthcare costs.1 In the UK, this means knowing the signs and symptoms of cancer and making an appointment with a doctor as soon as they’re noticed (See Cancer Research UK for more details about symptoms of cancer).

World Cancer Day isn’t just about raising awareness of the risk factors – reducing the global burden cancer is a collective effort. Greater pressure needs to be placed on policy-makers to focus on better preventative measures. This would not only be more cost-effective, but also lead to improved quality of life for all.

Quitting smoking is still the most effective way to reduce the risk of cancer3, however, cuts to Stop Smoking Services have reduced access, with the number of people using them declining in 2017 for the fifth consecutive year.5

Another important preventative measure is ensuring that schools are healthy spaces, laying the groundwork for good diet and activity levels into adulthood. Inclusive and quality physical education needs to form part of the school curriculum. Improving physical literacy through instruction is linked to improved attitudes and an increased likelihood of life-long participation. The Kitchen Garden Project, headed by TV chef Jamie Oliver, aims to educate nursery school children about food and health through gardening, cooking and nutrition lessons.2 Cost-effective schemes like this could be rolled-out nationally, from nursery up to secondary schools, without draining government departmental budgets and leading to long-term cost savings for society.

Measures we take as individuals are valuable, but must be supplemented with support from government and the latest scientific breakthroughs. The news this week that prostate cancer deaths have now overtaken those from breast cancer is a good illustration of how a combination of improved awareness and diagnosis and advances in treatment options can improve patient outcomes. Deaths from breast cancer have been falling for almost two decades in response to a sustained effort to diagnose the disease early and significant advances in medicines, such as those tailored to specific genetic variants of the disease.7

Cancer has many costs for society – it is clear that only a combination of individual efforts, government support for screening and awareness programmes, investment in cancer research and specialist cancer facilities, and funding for the latest therapies will lead to a long-term reduction in this burden.

Everyone has or will be, directly or indirectly, affected by cancer in their lifetime. In addition to the healthy lifestyle choices we can make on a personal level, there are several ways you can support continued research this World Cancer Day. This includes buying a unity band from Cancer Research UK. For more information about what individual contribution you can make, visit the World Cancer Day website.  

 

References

1.       World Health Organization Cancer Fact Sheet website. Available at: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs297/en/ Last accessed January 2018.

2.       World Cancer Day website. Available at: http://www.worldcancerday.org/ Last accessed January 2018.

3.       World Cancer Research Fund website. Available at: http://www.wcrf.org/int/cancer-facts-figures/data-specific-cancers Last accessed January 2018.

4.       Plummer M, de Martel C, Vignat J, et al. Global burden of cancers attributable to infections in 2012: a synthetic analysis. Lancet Glob Health. 2016;9:e609–16.

5.       Statistics on NHS Stop Smoking Services website. Available at: https://digital.nhs.uk/catalogue/PUB30058 Last accessed January 2018.

6.       BBC News. Prostate cancer deaths overtake those from breast cancer. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-42890405 Last accessed January 2018.