Simple Changes Can Prevent 40% of Cancer


February 4th was World Cancer Day, and in recognition of the celebration, the World Health Organization (WHO) supported an initiative by the International Union Against Cancer to promote “Cancer Can Be Prevented Too”, which focuses on simple measures to prevent cancer.

According to WHO, more than 12 million people are diagnosed with cancer each year – and two out of five, or about 40%, are potentially preventable through smoking cessation, reduction in alcohol consumption, avoidance of excess UV rays, and achievement or maintenance of a healthy weight through diet and exercise. They also suggest vaccines that target nine cancer-causing infections, saying that 21% of all cancers are due to infections.

“If there was an announcement that somebody had discovered a cure for 40% of the world’s cancers,” said UICC president David Hill, “there would quite justifiably be huge jubilation. But the fact is that we have (it) now; the tragedy is we’re not using it.”

According to the National Vital Statistics Report, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. WHO officials call smoking “the single largest preventable cause of cancer.” Tobacco use is responsible for 1.8 million cancer deaths per year worldwide, and approximately a third of cancer-related deaths in the United States.


Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths, responsible for approximately 639,000 deaths. Regular screenings can prevent polyps from becoming malignant, according to the American Cancer Society. Other considerations include increasing fruit, vegetable and fiber intake; reducing red meat consumption; and maintaining a healthy weight.

Hormonally influenced breast and prostate cancers are three and four respectively. The risk of both of these cancers can be influenced by obesity, diet and a sedentary lifestyle. Being overweight or inactive are together responsible for approximately 274,000 cancer deaths each year. Other cancers with links to excess body weight include pancreatic cancer (number 5), esophageal cancer, and kidney cancer.

Rounding out the top seven are lymphoma and leukemia. The HIV virus can lead to AIDS-related lymphomas, so practicing safe sex can prevent this type of cancer. Those with AIDS can prevent lymphoma by taking anti-HIV medications to maintain a healthy immune system. The Epstein-Barr virus can also cause a type of cancer called Burkitt’s lymphoma that has an especially high incidence in African children.

Cervical and liver cancer, not in the top seven but both caused by infections (HPV for cervical cancer and Hepatitis B and C for liver), could be prevented with vaccines particularly in developing countries where it is estimated that 80% of the global cases of cervical cancer occur. Excessive alcohol use is another risk factor for liver cancer.

Another preventable type of cancer is skin cancer, or melanoma. The incidence of this disease has dramatically increased in recent years. Estimates suggest that there were 60,000 new cases in 2007 alone. Prevention includes wearing sunblock, preventing sunburn, and getting regular skin exams.


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