World Cancer Day is on the 4th of February. The purpose is to increase global awareness and get as many people talking about the disease as possible. Essentially, unite people from all around the world in the fight against cancer—and with worldwide incidence set to increase to 21.7 million by 2030, the fight is now. 2018 is the last in the three year ‘We Can. I can.’ campaign and consists of many small goals for both patients and others, all towards the larger objective of reducing cancer’s global burden.
Cary Adams, CEO of Union for International Cancer Control, the organizers of World Cancer Day, says
“Chances are, at some point in our lifetime we will either know someone who has had cancer or is currently fighting it. It affects us all – be it through a colleague, family member, or friend. The good news is that we know more about cancer today than ever before. Thanks to extraordinary breakthroughs in medicine, diagnostics, and scientific knowledge, we know that more than one third of cancer cases are preventable and another third of cancer cases can be cured if detected early and treated properly”.
Of all the goals outlined in the campaign, such as asking for support or creating healthy cities and workplaces, one really stands out. Prevent cancer. Mentioned almost nonchalantly, it’s easy to forget about the importance of actually preventing cancer in the first place. Accountable for 8.8 million deaths per year, cancer is one of the major causes of death worldwide – yet over a third of these could be completely avoided. Cancer Research UK estimates that this equates to over 600,000 cases in the last five years; around 42% in the United Kingdom and United States and 38% in Australia. By adopting simple lifestyle changes a large proportion of cases would simply disappear. Surely if we focus on this then overall global burden would be reduced?
Most people are aware of the relationship between smoking and lung cancer or sun damage and skin cancer but other lifestyle choices, such as poor diet or alcohol consumption, can also increase the risk of developing a tumour. Of course some risk factors, like age and genetics, can’t be avoided but let’s concentrate on those that can.
Researchers investigating claims of a relationship between Body-Mass-Index (BMI) and the risk of developing cancer found convincing evidence that a higher BMI increases risk of some types of cancer; including endometrial, pancreatic, and oesophageal cancer. However, the exact mechanism of how obesity may cause cancer is not wholly understood. Excess body fat may affect hormone levels (eg insulin or estrogen) and growth factors (such as IGF-1), which can lead to increased cell proliferation. By lowering our body weight, not only should it help keep these processes in check, but added advantages include lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and even better sleep. Perhaps we should look to lowering obesity rates as prevention, rather than to chemotherapy as treatment when it’s already too late.
A recent survey claimed that only one in ten British people knew that alcohol could cause cancer. When metabolised in the body alcohol has been found capable of causing seven different types of cancer, namely bowel, breast, and oral cancers. Enzymes known as alcohol dehydrogenases convert ethanol to acetaldehyde – a toxic chemical that is then further processed into other molecules. If accumulated in stem cells, acetaldehyde can cause rearrangement of chromosomes, DNA deletions, or strand breaks. Whilst these modifications to DNA may not always result in cancer – they do increase the risk significantly. Current guidelines for both men and women are to consume no more than 14 units of alcohol per week (approximately six pints of beer) to keep at a low risk level.
Tobacco smoke contains in excess of 250 harmful chemicals amongst thousands, over 25% of which are carcinogenic. The toxic combination of the other chemicals in cigarettes, add fuel to the fire and work jointly with carcinogens to accelerate damage. This happens mostly via free radicals and reactive oxygen species (toxic by-products) contained in tobacco smoke, causing mutations in DNA. The most common outcome is the development of lung cancer, which is true for four out of five cases in the United Kingdom. Apart from lung cancers, at least 13 other types have increased risk as a result of smoking – mostly gastrointestinal-related tumors.
Processed meat is not something that springs to mind when talking about cancer, but was classed as a carcinogen in 2015 by the WHO. This largely relates to the risk of developing post-menopausal breast cancer and should be looked at relatively. Eating two rashers of bacon probably isn’t going to be as harmful as smoking 30 cigarettes a day.
“Greater public understanding of cancer risk factors, such as tobacco and alcohol consumption, poor diets, sedentary lifestyles, and excessive exposure to the sun, is one step toward effective cancer prevention. It is with knowledge and information, combined with appropriate public policies, such as tobacco control laws and health and safety in the workplace, that individuals and policy makers are empowered to reduce their individual cancer risk and build a healthier nation and world.” – Dr. Cary Adams, CEO, Union for International Cancer Control
Benjamin Franklin famously said “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. And he’s right. However, just because you adapt all these lifestyle changes or are doing so already, it doesn’t guarantee you are protected against cancer. It simply means your chances of developing the disease are lowered, in some cases considerably. Regardless, the additional health benefits that could be reaped make this a no-brainer. That’s easy to say. We need to understand why people live like they do. Maybe the affordability of healthy produce is a stretch for some, and maybe the night shift worker can’t get to a gym. Identifying the cause behind these ‘choices’ equips us better to support rather than judge.
Featured image credit: We Can. I Can. CC BY-SA 4.0 via World Cancer Day.