When I talk with friends or acquaintances about the fact that there are things we can do to prevent cancer, I often get the old adage quoted back at me that, “we have to die of something”. For all of us, that’s true. But the unspoken subtext is “so why bother doing anything?”
A complex problem
Certainly the situation isn’t straightforward. Cancer rates are going up, fuelled by factors that are to an extent out of our control. We’re living longer and cancer is mainly a disease of older age. There are more of us on the planet, and because cancer is so common more of us will develop it. But does that mean we should throw our hands in the air and give up on trying to prevent cancer? No. In fact the opposite is true. It’s precisely because there are some things we can’t change that we need to really focus on those we can. These include lifestyle factors, such as maintaining a healthy weight and getting enough physical activity.
The case for bothering
People are getting fatter and less active. Around 1 in 4 of the global adult population is overweight or obese and being physically inactive is in the top 10 causes of death and disease in the world. It’s these factors that are also driving up cancer rates, but they’re within our control to change. Being overweight or obese is a strong risk factor for cancer and is linked to seven different types of cancer as well as other chronic diseases, like heart disease and diabetes.
What can be done
Our evidence-based cancer prevention recommendations outline eight steps people can take to reduce their overall cancer risk. Recent studies have shown that following the recommendations reduces the risk not just of developing cancer, but also of dying from it. Of course if it were that easy we wouldn’t be in the middle of a cancer epidemic. And just as individuals can feel that there’s no point doing anything because something has to ‘get us in the end’, governments can fail to take action because they feel it would be too expensive, too nannying and not supported by sufficient evidence.
One of the things WCRF International is focusing on in our policy work is demonstrating to decision makers that there is an evidence base for policy around obesity and physical activity - it just hasn’t been well applied or interpreted. Yet it holds the potential to make the healthy choice the easy choice, not the hard choice as often seems the case. The recent adoption at the World Health Assembly of a global framework to tackle cancer and other non-communicable diseases is a landmark opportunity to effect real change and show that increasing cancer rates are not inevitable. There’s no need to give up. We as individuals and governments can take action to influence our risk of developing cancer and other diseases. We have more scientific evidence available to us now than ever before. While the factors that influence our risk of getting cancer are complex, the science shows there are choices we can make to increase our chances of living cancer-free.