ScienceDaily (Mar. 28, 2012) — 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.
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.
Intervening too late in life to prevent cancer. Strategies like vaccination against cancer-causing viruses, such as the human papilloma virus that causes cervical cancer, work best when begun early, in this case before young people begin sexual activity.
Research focuses on treatment, not prevention. Treatments focus only on a single organ after diagnosis but behavioral changes reduce cancer and death rates from many chronic diseases.
Societal factors that affect health. Tobacco policy and government subsidies don't do enough to discourage unhealthy behavior, and in some cases they make the unhealthy options more accessible, especially in low-income communities.