By Maria João Cruz, Research Analyst, Centre for Health Solutions
Tuesday, 4th February, was the 20th World Cancer Day, a day that unites people, communities and entire countries to raise awareness and take action to reduce the global burden and impact of cancer. This year marks the mid-point of a three year campaign, led by the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC), ‘I Am and I Will’. This campaign is seen as an empowering ‘call-to-action’, urging everyone to commit personally to taking action now to impact the future.1 Today, I want to share with you my reflections on the importance of this day.
Cancer in numbers
In 2018, 18 million people world-wide were diagnosed with cancer. There are more than 200 known types of cancer. Lung, prostate, colorectal, stomach and liver cancer are the most common types in men, while breast, colorectal, lung, cervical and thyroid cancer are the most prevalent among women.2 Currently in the UK someone is diagnosed with cancer every two minutes.3
Over the past decades, cancer research has led to numerous scientific breakthroughs in developing and improving both diagnostics and treatments. Today, the prospects of major advances in tackling and even curing some cancers have never been greater. However, despite significant and promising advances, cancer is currently the second leading cause of death worldwide. According to the World Health Organisation, cancer killed around 9.6 million people in 20184, and its global burden is set to increase by more than 60 per cent by 2040, based on projections of our aging and growing populations.5
Today, the reality is that one in every two people in the UK born after 1960 will be diagnosed with some form of cancer at some point in their life.6 From those who are diagnosed, half will survive the disease for ten years or longer.7 If I had to take a guess, I would say that every single person reading this knows at least one person who has had or is still undergoing treatment for cancer. I lost both my parents to the disease. I know how hard and gruesome this battle can be. However, it shouldn’t be this way… and it doesn’t have to be.
Cancer prevention (is better than cure)
Cancer is a highly complex disease and the risk of developing it is associated with numerous factors, including genetics, age, exposure to various harmful factors (e.g. radiation, pollution, smoking, and alcohol), and lifestyle.8 The multifactorial nature of cancer means that there are things we can do today to reduce our risk of developing cancer in the future – it is not all down to bad genes or bad luck. In fact, it is estimated that as many as 38 per cent of cancer cases in the UK could be prevented every year.9 If we can do so, then we should take action to live healthier and cancer-free lives! Treat your body like it belongs to someone you love (I try to remind myself of this every day).
To lower our cancer risk, the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) recommends:
- maintaining a body weight within a healthy range
- being physically active daily (walk more and sit less – so important to remember this when our jobs are desk-based!)
- eating (and hopefully enjoying) a wide variety of wholegrains, vegetables and pulses
- avoiding high-calorie foods (often highly processed foods that are high in sugar and fat)
- limiting the consumption of red and processed meat
- limiting the consumption of sugary/sweetened drinks
- limiting the amount of alcohol you drink (however when it comes to cancer prevention, no amount of alcohol is considered safe; if you do want to drink alcohol you should follow national guidelines).
- stop smoking, as the more a person smokes, the younger they start, and the longer they keep smoking, the risk of cancer will increase. Currently tobacco use is responsible for around 22 per cent of cancer deaths.10
To mark the 20th anniversary of the World Cancer Day, the UICC undertook a unique global survey on public perceptions attitudes and beliefs around cancer. Fifteen thousand people across 20 countries responded. What stands out for me in reviewing the results is the surprising and worrying finding that younger people appear to be much less aware of the risk of tobacco use compared to older people. Less surprising, but equally important, socio-economically disadvantaged groups, no matter where they are in the world, continue to have lower levels of cancer awareness and a less likely to be engaging in preventative behaviours. The findings confirm the need for a continued global commitment to help stem the growing cancer crisis and for leaders, decision makers and the international cancer community, is to transform these commitments into action.11
In addition to adopting the lifestyle recommendations above, each and every one of us can do a lot more to proactively and effectively take a positive action against cancer.
- Get screened. Early detection saves lives. Cancer can go undetected for years. It is critical that we know our bodies and to be aware of abnormal changes so we can talk to our doctors in time.12
- Stay informed. In this hyper-connected world we can access information as never before. However, it is important to only use trusted sources to combat the spread of misinformation and misconceptions about cancer. Government agencies, organisations, hospitals, universities, and medical journals and books that provide evidence-based information are sources that can be trusted.
- Donate and/or take part in fundraising events to help finance cancer research. Thanks to research, we know more about cancer than ever before. However, research and development is continuously generating newer, more effective life-extending and life-saving treatments. From an economic perspective, there is a significant return on investment in cancer research – by spending money on research we can ‘save’ future treatment costs.13
- Influence and inspire others. Having open conversations about cancer goes a long way to break the stigma that the disease carries. Indeed, urgent action is needed to raise awareness about cancer, dispel myths and misconceptions, and develop practical strategies to address the disease. Fear and discrimination need to be reduced so we can strengthen the support given to cancer patients and their loved ones. Coping with a cancer diagnosis and the treatment journey can take a heavy toll on the physical, mental and emotional health of patients and their loved ones. By talking openly and with compassion, we can change attitudes for the better.
Given the theme ‘I Am and I Will’, the time to act to reduce the global cancer burden and promote greater equity of outcomes is now! I’d therefore like to urge everyone reading this to take some time to reflect on what actions are within our own and our families reach to contribute to tackling this crisis. Importantly, if you have a story to share, share it. Hopefully, this blog has provided you with important food for thought and action points to take on to drastically reduce the risks and prevalence of cancer.