The Cancer Caucus has been instrumental in helping legislators to understand the value of cancer prevention while encouraging investments in critical research toward reducing the risk of cancer. But sometimes, the hardest actions to take are the things we know we must do.
When it comes to cancer, we have known for almost 40 years that up to half of all cases are preventable. What’s more, for a similarly long period of time, the collective and individual actions needed to prevent cancer have been clearly stated — improve people’s diets, be more physically active, maintain or achieve a healthy body weight and follow other health-related advice (e.g. do not use tobacco, avoid excess sun exposure and follow appropriate screening and vaccination recommendations). But convincing society to embrace these pragmatic steps that offer our best chance of making a dent in cancer’s deadly path has long proven challenging.
It is estimated that over 1.7 million people will be diagnosed with cancer in the United States in 2018; over 600,000 people will die from the disease. The financial and emotional costs are enormous but so is the opportunity to make a difference.
Research has enabled us to identify, treat and even live with cancer, but there is still so much scope for progress. While better detection and treatment are important, preventing cancer from taking root in the first place has the potential to save many more lives. In fact, the research shows that almost half of cancers are preventable.
A recent, comprehensive analysis of the global research on lifestyle factors and cancer prevention confirms the critical links between diet, physical activity, body weight and cancer diagnoses. Independent experts from across the globe reviewed decades of research to summarize the scientific evidence and developed the most reliable cancer prevention lifestyle advice currently available as 10 cancer prevention recommendations.
The latest review of research from 51 million people includes 3.5 million cancer cases in 17 cancer types. The evidence remains remarkably consistent with earlier comprehensive analyses, published in 1997 and 2007, showing that modifying what people eat, being more physically active, having a healthy body weight and other health-related choices can prevent nearly half of all cancer diagnoses.
The report offers 10 steps that individuals can take to reduce the risk of cancer. Many people already know that these steps are things that we need to do, but they may not realize how important they are in reducing cancer risk. In addition, this latest report articulates a policy approach to develop comprehensive packages of policies to support these actions and promote health.
We know that achieving meaningful population-level progress will take more than just individual action. We need organized efforts and policies that will make it easier for all Americans to help themselves and their families remain cancer-free. To get there, we need to bring together government, civic organizations, national and international professional organizations and other relevant bodies from the private sector, philanthropy, funding organizations, academia and average Americans.
Our future does not need to repeat the past. Cancers are preventable. While preventing cancer may seem like an impossible dream, this dream can become our reality. By improving everyday aspects of American lifestyles, we can dramatically reduce the risk and burden of cancer.
But without action, the number of lives affected by cancer will continue to rise, as well as the economic toll from the cost of care and the loss to our economy. Prevention breaks the cycle that perpetuates cancer. Prevention saves lives, addresses costs and makes our communities healthier and more resilient places.
Our task is very clear: Together, we must take those important first steps toward a cancer-free future.
Nigel Brockton is director of research at the American Institute for Cancer Research.
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