More Than Half of All Cancer Is Preventable: Public Health Researchers Outline Obstacles Standing in the Way of Prevention

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More than half of all cancer is preventable, and society has the knowledge to act on this information today, according to Washington University public health researchers at the Siteman Cancer Center in St. Louis.

In a review article published in Science Translational Medicine March 28, the investigators outline obstacles they say stand in the way of making a huge dent in the cancer burden in the United States and around the world.

“We actually have an enormous amount of data about the causes and preventability of cancer,” says epidemiologist Graham A. Colditz, MD, DrPH, the Niess-Gain Professor at the School of Medicine and associate director of prevention and control at the Siteman Cancer Center. “It’s time we made an investment in implementing what we know.”

What we know, according to Colditz and his co-authors, is that lifestyle choices people make and that society can influence in a number of ways — from tobacco use to diet and exercise — play a significant role in causing cancer. Specifically, the researchers cite data demonstrating that smoking alone is responsible for a third of all cancer cases in the United States. Excess body weight and obesity account for another 20 percent.

But beyond individual habits, they argue that the structure of society itself — from medical research funding to building design and food subsidies — influences the extent of the cancer burden and can be changed to reduce it.
The obstacles they see to implementing broad cancer prevention strategies are:
Skepticism that cancer can be prevented. Smoking rates in different states demonstrate that 75 percent of lung cancer in the United States could be prevented with elimination of cigarette smoking.

The short-term focus of cancer research. Benefits of prevention may be underestimated because they take decades to show up, and research funding often spans five years or less.

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