September 30, 2014
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Cutting Your Cancer Risk

Reducing cancer's death toll through prevention

Reducing cancer's death toll through prevention

Ever heard the saying "prevention is the best medicine"? While there are a number of factors that contribute to the risk of developing cancer and affect its prognosis, a study published in the medical journal The Lancet found that 9 risk factors contributed to more than one-third of cancer deaths around the world annually.

But unlike risk factors that are beyond our control, such as family history, these are modifiable risk factors that we do have control over. So taking positive action in any or all of these areas can lower the risk of developing and dying from cancer.

The risk factors identified in the study were:

  • overweight and obesity
  • low fruit and vegetable intake
  • physical inactivity
  • smoking
  • alcohol use
  • unsafe sex
  • urban air pollution
  • smoke from coal or wood stoves
  • transmission of hepatitis virus in a health care setting

In the study, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health analyzed data from the World Health Organization's Comparative Risk Assessment project, which examines risk factors in different regions around the world. In their analysis, the Harvard researchers looked at how certain risk factors affected men and women as well as the impact these risk factors had in high-, low-, and medium-income countries.

Overall, the researchers concluded that these risk factors account for 35% (or 2.43 million) of the world's 7 million annual cancer deaths. In high-income regions such as North America, smoking, alcohol, and overweight and obesity were found to be the most important risk factors.

Each year in Canada, there are over 177,000 new cases of cancer and an estimated 75,300 people die of cancer. In 2007, cancer surpassed cardiovascular disease as the leading cause of death in Canada. Because there are effective screening methods available for only a few cancers (and prognosis can be dependent on catching cancer early, before it spreads), the effectiveness of treatment for many cancers may be limited. According to the Harvard study, the best way to reduce these deaths is to prevent the cancers from developing in the first place by targeting modifiable risk factors. This is where you can be in control.

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