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U.S. Cancer Rates Could Be Cut in Half Today Based on What’s Already Known

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Image courtesy of iStockphoto/BrianAJackson

More than half a million people died from cancer in the U.S. in 2011. We have many astounding advances in medicine to thank for that number not being higher. But that grim figure could also be a lot lower even without a breakthrough drug for breast or lung cancer.

In fact, more than 280,000 of those lives could have been spared by preventing the disease in the first place—all via behavioral and research changes based on scientific discoveries that have been made already, according to a new review article published online March 28 in Science Translational Medicine. This statistic is not new, the researchers pointed out, but quibbling over details of exactly how many cases of—or deaths from—each form of cancer are due to preventable risk factors, the researchers noted, has delayed investment in mitigating the risks that researchers already know about, the authors argued.

“We actually have an enormous amount of data about the causes and preventability of cancer,” Graham Colditz, a professor at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and co-author of the new study, said in a prepared statement. “It’s time we made an investment in implementing what we know.”

Scientists know, for instance, that more exercise and less alcohol intake can lower the risk for breast cancer and that quitting smoking drastically reduces the risk for lung cancer. We also know that vaccines for HPV and hepatitis can reduce liver and cervical cancers by more than half and that aspirin can reduce overall cancer death by some 20 percent. Getting these interventions to the right people, however, is easier said than done.

“The obstacles to these efforts are societal and arise from the organization of institutions, including academia, and in the habits of daily life,” the researchers wrote.

And habits can be hard to break, especially the biggest cancer-causing habit of all: smoking. Without smoking, at least 75 percent of all lung cancer cases in the U.S. could be avoided, they noted.

Research, too, needs to change the ways it gets things done. With the lion’s share of funding for cancer research allocated to seeking new treatments, the science of prevention can get short shrift—in funding and in academic esteem. Although much progress has been made in developing treatments to extend the lives of those who already have specific kinds of cancer, the researchers suggested that “behavioral interventions, such as smoking cessation or promotion of physical activity can diminish incidence and mortality of many types of cancer and other chronic diseases while at the same time improving quality of life.”

Colditz and his colleagues suggested that professional prestige be bestowed not just on basic biological discoveries, but also on applied medicine and those who discover how to make the best use of what we already know. “There is much more the United States and the world and be doing to prevent cancer. Right now,” they wrote.

Perhaps one the biggest hurdles in putting prevention to work, however, has been our own rush to see results. “Humans are impatient, and that human trait itself is an obstacle to cancer prevention,” they noted. “Studies that focus on short-term exposures or short-term follow-up almost certainly will miss the true benefits of prevention.”

For example, despite reductions to the amount of asbestos workers could be exposed to starting in the 1970s in the UK, rules were slow to be fully implemented and extended to lower levels of exposure. So, asbestos-related cancers will probably keep rising there until 2020. Likewise, on an individual level, someone who quits smoking drops his or her risk of lung cancer by 13 percent in the first five years after stopping.  Not bad, but by 10 years out, the risk drops by 33 percent.

So to really prevent more cancers over the long haul, researchers and policy makers should take the long view—interventions and study participants should be followed not for two or five years, the researchers noted, but for 20 and beyond. And these studies should start earlier. Many cancers take decades to develop, and even lifestyle choices made in our youth, such as alcohol use and lack of physical activity, can impact cancer risk down the road. So to realize the biggest results, the authors noted, “studies and interventions should be targeted at the early stages of the human life span, but this rarely happens.”

Colditz and his colleagues also argued that achieving dramatic cuts to cancer incidence requires immediate action—individually and collectively. “Each passing year leaves a substantially greater portion of the world population at risk for cancer, despite our current knowledge,” they wrote. “We have a moral responsibility to act now and reduce that burden.”

Katherine Harmon Courage About the Author: Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance writer and contributing editor for Scientific American. Her book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea is out now from Penguin/Current. Follow on Twitter @KHCourage.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. marsdmitri 5:15 pm 03/28/2012

    Many thanks for this article. We can see this huge numbers of death, because people lost control for quality of the food and water, juice.
    1. People in USA has not control for concentrations of mercury, dioxins, phenol and so on in food, water and juice.
    2. Quality of food from US worse than in Montreal (in hamburgers for example).You use skin,bones, hair with meat in hamburgers. It is amazing.
    3. My mother (doctor) told me, that 60 years ago there was any cancer in village in Siberia in USSR. When new chemistry, nuclear industry factories, works were built it start.
    So, we have to use a lot of robots instead of people there and must use new standard for food, forbid any artificial component in food, like salt of aluminium, any colorants in juices.
    But American people fear do it.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Bops 7:34 pm 03/28/2012

    Thank you for your comment.
    I just learned about aluminum added to salt and it’s toxic.
    Now, I read all the labels carefully and look up any new words.
    I don’t trust most “Companies for Profit” to look out for our food safety anymore. Jolly Rancher Jelly Beans added sulfur…to protect strong fake flavors and colors that stain our teeth. I only noticed because the bag smelled terrible. How gross it that…and I brought them home because I did not read the label. After I talked to them, I was sorry that I had wasted the time. We’re eating better, I hope it’s not to late.

    Link to this
  3. 3. RobRob2 9:09 pm 03/28/2012

    It sounds like a category that needs an award. Is it quantifiable enough to create an award for one who saves the lives of so many people in the US through prevention. A scientific prize may increase awareness for those that increase awareness and reduce the risk of death for large amounts of people.

    Link to this
  4. 4. GG 9:52 pm 03/28/2012

    I really hate to say this, but you could also make a case for “the dark side”…That is, why widespread disease is a “good thing” (for lack of a better word).

    Widespread cancer keeps the social pressure on; society stays focused on pushing research on, until a real cure is found. If the disease could be mitigated in other ways, society would just drop the ball and walk away from continued research. There are many “orphan diseases” out there, which get no attention and no funding exactly because of this problem. It is quite a conundrum.

    On a personal level, of course you should do everything you can to have a healthy life.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Jerzy New 7:00 am 03/29/2012

    Everybody already frequently sees the information that we should exercise lots, not smoke etc. And, of course, avoid stressful job. People are free to make their own decisions.

    I am more afraid of institutions pushing themselves deeper into people lives under different labels.

    In Orwell’s dystopia ’1984′ the protagonist in totalitarian state must participate in physical exercises, sit-ups and all, compulsory, every morning, whether he feels like it or not. Seems funny, until we learn more about orwellian state.

    Link to this
  6. 6. bigbopper 11:46 am 03/29/2012

    If all current smokers stopped smoking today, and nobody else started smoking, and everyone who is obese were to magically be converted into someone with an ideal body weight, and everyone who isn’t regularly exercising right now started regularly exercising, and nobody else got obese or stopped exercising, cancer rates would NOT be cut in half TODAY. They would eventually go down substantially, but many ex-smokers will still get smoking-related cancers, and many ex-obese couch potatoes will still get obesity-related cancers, because the risk declines slowly over time.

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  7. 7. drwinsett 3:08 pm 03/29/2012

    Great! Thank you for such a well written article. I am a breast surgeon and I have been “preaching” this almost daily for over a year at http://www.drwinsett.blogspot.com.

    Link to this
  8. 8. Carlyle 7:47 am 03/30/2012

    It is very difficult to be confident that the advice we get is valid. Take asprin for example. For years a low daily dosage has been promoted as beneficial to health but recently I have read several reports that seem very credible, that dispute the advisability of taking asprin on a regular basis as a preventative measure. Unfortunately over my long life, I have seen numerous instances of things being promoted then removed from the list of preventive or health promoting products.
    Personally I think exercise & a balanced diet are the best health promoters. Medication only if needed.

    Link to this
  9. 9. Steve3 7:48 pm 03/30/2012

    GeeeeeZ bigbopper — and to think I was just about to clean up my life style — buuh wh botha ???

    Link to this
  10. 10. bucketofsquid 10:43 am 04/6/2012

    Carlyle makes a very good point. So many things are labelled good or bad without proper study that we get burned out on it. The author makes a good point though. These same mistaken ideas would have been disproved much sooner if proper long term study had happened before it was released for public consumption.

    As I began to explore proper exercise I discovered that a large amount of supposed exercise wisdom was simply wrong. I found the same thing with food and nutrition. People from cultures that don’t consume dairy products tend to not get any nutritional value from them. The same with beans and corn and other grains.

    Apparently this whole adaptation to your environment really has something to it. A healthy diet for one person may be horrible for another. It all comes down to your bacteria.

    Link to this
  11. 11. AsbestosRemoval 8:31 pm 08/9/2012

    This statistic is not new, the researchers pointed out. But quibbling over info of just how umteen cases of-or deaths from-each configuration of person are due to preventable assay factors. The researchers noted, has slow finance in mitigating the risks that researchers already bed around.
    Asbestos Removal Montreal

    Link to this

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