Half of all Cancers may be Preventable

Cancer burden can be reduced with behavioral change

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) A healthy lifestyle can be the key to preventing many chronic diseases, including cancer. In fact, thousands of lives could be saved - not to mention billions of dollars - if society worked together to encourage healthier lifestyles.

About half of all cancers are preventable. Smoking accounts for 30 percent of malignancies and obesity is a contributing factor in an additional 20 percent.

A team of researchers suggests it's time for society to step up to the plate and do something with this knowledge.

"Don't smoke, eat healthy and exercise to help prevent cancer."

Washington University public health researchers at the Siteman Cancer Center in St. Louis wrote a review article outlining the barriers that stand in the way of making huge progress against cancer in the United States and around the globe.

“We actually have an enormous amount of data about the causes and preventability of cancer,” says epidemiologist Graham A. Colditz, M.D., Dr.P.H., the Niess-Gain Professor at the School of Medicine and associate director of prevention and control at the Siteman Cancer Center. “It’s time we made an investment in implementing what we know,”  Dr. Colditz said.

Dr. Colditz told dailyRx, "We clearly show that more than 50 percent of cancer can be prevented with what we already know. We need to act on this scientific understanding to work as a community, as health care providers and with our local state and federal politicians to build a healthier society. This will come through decreases in smoking, more physical activity, healthier diet and using medical services for vaccines and cancer screening," Dr. Colditz said.

Colditz and his co-authors say that society can influence lifestyle choices in a number of ways, because it's not just about individual habits. They suggest that reducing the cancer burden is stymied by "the structure of society itself — from medical research funding to building design and food subsidies."

Here's what's standing in the way of preventing more cancers:

  • Public skepticism that cancer is a preventable disease
  • Elimination of smoking to prevent 75 percent of lung cancers
  • Short-term focus of cancer research and research funding (usually five years or less) doesn't allow for studying prevention that can take decades to appear.
  • Proper timing of vaccination programs against cancer-causing viruses such as the human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Research focuses on treatment, not prevention.
  • Treatments focus on one organ, while behavioral changes after a cancer diagnosis can reduce cancer and mortality rates.
  • Debate among scientists regarding communicating risk factors without knowing the biological mechanisms that cause cancer.
  • Government policies and subsidies that don't do enough to encourage healthy behaviors, especially among low-income individuals
  • Lack of collaboration between scientists and health experts to find and communicate the causes of cancer and then work with community leaders to implement programs that encourage healthy lifestyles.

Change is going to be difficult because of so many players involved, but is possible, says Dr. Colditz. He points to the relatively rapid elimination of trans fats from food.

Study co-author, Sarah J. Gehlert, Ph.D., the E. Desmond Lee Professor of Racial and Ethnic Diversity at the Brown School of Social Work and the School of Medicine, expands on the possibilities for change. “Stricter tobacco policy is a good example. But we can’t make policy change on our own. We can tell the story, but it requires a critical mass of people to talk more forcefully about the need for change,” Gehlert said.

This review article was published in the March 28, 2012 issue of Science Translational Medicine.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
March 28, 2012
Last Updated:
March 29, 2012