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Global Network

Focusing on Cancer Prevention

Prevention Bubble Graphic The close of World Cancer Day (February 4) and the start of Cancer Prevention Month come at a time when research shows that millions of cancer cases around the world can be prevented every year. It also follows a major new analysis published in The Lancet that reveals a major shift in health trends around the world: non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as cancer and heart disease, have now become the primary causes of death and disability worldwide, overtaking infections and other communicable diseases.

Currently, 7.6 million people die from cancer worldwide every year, out of which, 4 million people die prematurely (aged 30 to 69). Global rates of cancer incidence and mortality have reached epidemic proportions, and cancer now accounts for more deaths worldwide than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined.

Here are the numbers when it comes to prevention:

  • 1.5 million premature cancer deaths could be prevented per year if targets set to reduce NCDs are met by 2025, according The Union for International Cancer Control and the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
  • The 1.5 million lives lost per year represent 25 percent of the estimated 6 million premature cancer deaths that will occur by 2025.
  • About 2.8 million cases of cancer could be prevented globally every year through eating a healthy diet, being physically active and maintaining a healthy weight.
  • In the United States, almost 400,000 cases of cancer are preventable every year by eating a healthy diet, being physically active and maintaining a healthy weight, according to AICR/WCRF estimates.

Obesity Overtakes Under-Nutrition for Deaths

Aside from smoking, excess body fat is the single biggest lifestyle-related factor that increases cancer risk. High BMI is also the risk factor with the greatest increase in health burden, causing three times as many deaths as under-nutrition, according to the analysis, which estimated the disease burden attributable to 43 risk factors in 1990 and 2010.

High BMI was ranked 10th in 1990 and sixth in 2010, causing more than 3 million deaths in 2010.

Compared to its first analysis in 1990, “The Global Burden of Disease Study 2010” found that people are living longer but they are living with chronic diseases, such as cancer and heart disease. The researchers estimated both the number of deaths attributed to each risk factor and disability-adjusted life years (DALYs), a unit that accounts for both years of life lost and years lived with disability.

According to the analysis, smoking and alcohol use have overtaken child hunger in the last two decades to become the second and third leading risks globally. Alcohol accounted for 4.9 million deaths worldwide in 2010.

Tobacco use, including second-hand smoke, was the risk factor with the biggest burden in western Europe and high-income North American countries, and accounted for 6.3 million deaths worldwide in 2010. Dietary risk factors and physical inactivity collectively accounted for one tenth of DALYs in 2010, with the most prominent dietary risks being too much salt and not enough fruit.

Taking Preventive Action

AICR's updated preventability estimates show that close to 400,000 cases of cancers in the United States can be prevented each year by eating a healthy diet, undertaking regular physical activity, being at a healthy weight and limiting alcohol consumption.

Smoking and other tobacco use are also strongly linked to increased risk of lung and other cancers. Certain bacteria and other infectious agents are also linked to cancer. Getting the vaccine to prevent against infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV) can protect against cervical cancer, for example.

For more information on which cancer risks link to foods, activity, and excess body fat, see AICR’s preventability estimates.


Sources: Lim SS, et al. “A comparative risk assessment of burden of disease and injury attributable to 67 risk factors and risk factor clusters in 21 regions, 1990-2010: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010.” Lancet. 2013 Dec 15;380(9859):2224-60. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(12)61766-8.

Murray CJ et al. “Disability‐adjusted life years (DALYs) for 291 diseases and injuries in 21 regions, 1990–2010: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010.”
Lancet. 2013 Dec 15;380(9859):2197-223. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(12)61689-4.

National Cancer Institute. Cancer Protection Overview: Risk Factors.

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