World needs to step up efforts on cancer prevention

02 December 2014 | Policy

Dr Kate AllenDr Kate Allen is Executive Director, Science & Public Affairs, at World Cancer Research Fund International.

Joining experts from around the globe at the World Cancer Congress in Melbourne today, the question running through my mind is: how much more evidence is needed before the world steps up action on cancer prevention?

Over the course of this year the momentum has been building around cancer – and what we can do to prevent it –in the wake of a significant increase in the number of cases of the disease worldwide, and mounting evidence of the strong links between lifestyle, obesity and a whole host of cancers. In February, for example, UN Agency, The International Agency for Research on Cancer reported that “cancer is now the world’s biggest killer, with the number of cases set to explode” to 24 million a year by 2035. In May, The Lancet published the Global Burden of Disease study revealing that nearly one-third of the world's population is either obese or overweight. And just last month, the McKinsey Global Institute calculated that the global economic impact of obesity amounts to roughly $2 trillion annually - 2.8% of global GDP - nearly equivalent to the global impact of smoking or of armed violence, war, and terrorism.

Put simply, we are experiencing what the World Health Organization describes as a cancer epidemic, and the scale of the problem means that humanity will not be able to treat its way out of it. We urgently need to focus on prevention. World Cancer Research Fund International’s systematic, and rigorous analysis of global research shows that there is a strong link between being overweight, obese and an increased risk of nine cancers - ovarian, advanced prostate, bowel, kidney, gallbladder, womb, oesophageal, pancreatic and postmenopausal breast cancer – and that about a third of the most common cancers can be prevented through diet, weight and physical activity. In other words, globally, about 2.8 million cases of cancer a year are preventable.

Cancer prevention – together we can

And it looks as though world leaders are beginning to take cancer prevention seriously. Recent examples include the World Health Organization (WHO) Global Action Plan on NCDs 2013-2020, the WHO Regional Committee for Europe’s new five-year Food and Nutrition Action Plan (adopted this September); the new European Code Against Cancer (launched in October) which provides 12 ways for people to adopt healthier lifestyles and boost cancer prevention; and world governments attending the Second International Conference on Nutrition adopting the Rome Declaration on Nutrition and Framework for Action in November, to address malnutrition - including overweight and obesity - in all its forms. But much more needs to be done – by everyone; because so far, the world has been dancing a slow waltz, when it’s actually a much faster, quickstep that’s required. This means that governments, cancer charities and health professionals across the world need to work collaboratively - and across sectors - to create comprehensive, and urgent behaviour change across populations, food systems and food environments. Words and commitments are no longer enough, it’s concrete and immediate action that’s needed.

What the world needs to do next

More specifically, we at World Cancer Research Fund International, would like to see the following action to be taken:

Early intervention – the first thousand days from conception to age two are critical to health both in childhood and later life, so efforts to encourage healthy lifestyles need to start early; globally, the number of overweight children rose from 32 milion in 2000, to 42 million in 2013.

Implementation of effective policies – There is no single solution, so governments need to implement comprehensive, multi-sectoral cancer prevention policies. National governments, the cancer community and health professionals have a long way to go to address the lifestyle factors of overweight, lack of physical activity, poor diet and alcohol linked with cancer. We need to maintain efforts already underway while accepting that a sustainable approach to the problem will require more than a focus on individual responsibility.

Developing countries – tackling the rising tide of overweight and obesity is key to cancer prevention, particularly in developing countries where the adoption of ‘Western lifestyles’ means that obesity is accelerating. One of the ways of doing this is through the post-2015 development goals. The millennium development goals come to an end next year, and the United Nations has been working on the next, post-2015, set of sustainable development goals. We’ve advocated for non-communicable diseases (NCDs), including cancer, to be included. We need to ensure that tackling NCDs remains in the final set of agreed goals. Cancer prevention has never been more vital or urgent. So at this week’s World Cancer Congress we’re focusing on sharing learning from our policy and research and working collaboratively. For example, we're meeting 12 national cancer charities from across the world to explore working together on solutions.

We’re doing our bit. We urge others to join us in our efforts to take cancer prevention to the next level.

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Dr Kate Allen | 02 December 2014

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