Professional Help: 5 Ways to Jumpstart Cancer Prevention

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More than half of all cancer is avoidable. Here, epidemiologist Graham Colditz shares five research-based strategies to stop this disease in its tracks.

Professional Help
1. Julie Keen; 2. Mario Lopes; 3. emin kuliyev/Shutterstock

Society has the knowledge to avert most deaths involving cancer, according to a recent paper in Science Translational Medicine.

"We actually have an enormous amount of data about the causes and preventability of cancer," says study author Graham A. Colditz, the associate director of prevention and control at the Siteman Cancer Center. "It's time we made an investment in implementing what we know."

This week on Professional Help, Colditz outlines the obstacles that stand in the way of slashing the cancer burden in the U.S. and around the world, and offers five ways to get past them that range from the personal (exercise!) to the political.


Know most cancers are preventable. Cancer isn't all genetics or bad luck. Research confirms more than half of cancer in the U.S. is preventable. The top preventable causes of cancer are lifestyle choices: smoking, obesity, diet, and lack of physical activity (PDF). In 2011, there were 572,000 deaths from cancer. That's at least 286,000 people that could be alive today had they modified just one of those risk factors. We as a society need to make changes in the way we live and shift our thinking about cancer prevention and wellness.

Act now to prevent cancer later. Research shows that certain cancers, like pancreatic, colon, and cervical, can take more than 20 years to develop. Think of changes to the cancer risk factors in our lives as medicine we take now to improve our health years down the road. Help stop cancer in children and young adults as well. In addition to the lifestyle choices above, some of the best early prevention activities include vaccinations (since viruses cause 15 percent of cancers worldwide), minimizing sun exposure, and, for girls, avoiding alcohol and increasing physical activity during adolescence (which significantly increases the risk of benign breast disease, a precursor to breast cancer) (PDF).

Broaden the reach of cancer research. The academic world must shift its research practices. Most federal and nonfederal research dollars go to studying cancer treatments and causes. But for society to get the biggest return on investment from these research dollars, the focus must be on cancer prevention and implementing population-level strategies. The field also needs more transdisciplinary cancer prevention research that brings scientists from all fields - from physicians to public health experts and economists to basic scientists -- to the table with the common goal of preventing cancer (PDF). This approach to research capitalizes on their varied expertise and would result in more effective prevention strategies.

Address societal factors that influence health. A person's risk of developing cancer is influenced by many factors, including region, economic status, job, education level, neighborhood layout, access to health care resources and more. The U.S. must address some of its most extreme social inequities, because these health disparities often dictate who gets and survives cancer (PDF). Those most heavily burdened by an increased cancer death rate include minorities and lower socioeconomic status groups. Among others, improved conditions and access to services in high-risk areas will help prevent cancer and improve the health of these populations.

Bring everyone to the table now. Preventing cancer is both an individual and a societal issue (PDF) . All parties - individuals, government, academia, science administrators, etc. - need to come to the table ready to get serious about addressing the barriers to preventing cancer and paving the way for change. We must also look at the ways we fund and promote prevention research and the implementation of cancer prevention programs. This crucial step has the potential to lay the foundation for long-term success. With Baby Boomers aging and the number of cancer cases expected to double in the next 15 years, the time to act is now.

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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