Playing the Odds: What We Mean by “Prevention”

population figure

Cancer prevention: It’s what AICR is all about. We fund research, analyze data and produce recommendations, all with the same goal in mind — saving lives.

We want to reduce the burden that cancer places on the population, both in lives lost, as well as in the billions of dollars now spent on cancer care. We want to make cancer much, much more rare.

Prevention in Research

When researchers and policy makers talk about “cancer prevention,” that’s what they mean. They’re looking at the issue from the population level, with the goal of reducing the number of cases of cancer that occur within a given group.

When we at AICR talk to the research community or policy makers, “prevention” is the word we use, as its nuanced technical meaning is generally understood.

Prevention in the Media

But when we talk to individuals – when we translate the science into practical, easy-to-understand information that people can use in their daily lives, we have to be careful.

Because when the language of research and policy gets picked up in the media – when you’re at home reading the paper and see a headline like “Physical Activity Prevents Endometrial Cancer,” for example – you’re not thinking about prevention in the sense of “decreasing incidence across a given population.”

No, you’re thinking something more along the lines of, “Okay, then: If I work out, I’ll prevent myself from getting endometrial cancer.”

And that’s a problem. Because even with all of the research at our disposal, there are still no guarantees when it comes to cancer.  It isn’t a light switch that can be flicked on and off.

Your Cancer Risk

All of us are at some level of risk for getting cancer at some point in our lives.

It’s difficult to know how much risk, exactly.  After all, there are some pack-a-day smokers who never get lung cancer, just as some healthy, non-smoking individuals get diagnosed with lung cancer every day.

But for the vast majority of us, our cancer risk is something we can increase or decrease.

And that’s what we really mean, when we talk to individuals: You can help protect yourself against cancer.  And given that the science says, strongly and consistently, that healthy everyday choices can and do decrease cancer risk, it makes sense to make those choices.

It’s a bet, yes. Every time you decide to go for a run or choose a fresh salad over a fast-food burger, you’re playing the odds. But those odds are very good.

And decades of research into the science of cancer prevention – including these new studies which demonstrate the real-world cancer protection afforded by following AICR’s recommendations – show that a healthy overall lifestyle is the smartest, safest bet you can make.

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